Read the passage here.
Today is our first Sunday in the book of 2 Samuel – though as we’ve mentioned, it is just as rightly considered the mid-point of the book of Samuel. And depending on how one defines the major divisions in the book of Samuel, this may be considered a mid-point (though towards the end) of David’s rise to the kingship of Israel.
However, it makes perfect sense as to why 1 and 2 Samuel would have been divided here. As we remember from a couple of weeks ago, the 1 Samuel closed with the death of king Saul, which makes a logical end to that part of the narrative. And our passage today picks up with David finding out about Saul’s death.
So what I want to do with our passage today is, firstly, to introduce a couple of questions about the text (which I hope are interesting or useful), then to think about how this passage functions in the overall narrative, and finally to think a little bit about how it may serve to help us as we think about our own faith today.
So first, a couple of textual questions. The plot is pretty straightforward and follows naturally after the last passage about Saul’s death (which we may want to remember closes off this series of chapters alternating between David and Saul). What we may remember from that series of chapters are that a couple of things are going on – that is, something is going on with David, and something is going on with Saul.
Firstly and very briefly, we see that David is still fleeing Saul. He takes refuge among the Philistines, and goes into the service of Achish.
At the same time, and also very briefly, Saul because of the threat of the Philistines consults the medium at Endor, who raises up the spirit of Samuel who confirms Saul’s judgement has come. In short, he confirms that Saul will die at the hands of the Philistines.
Returning to David, David and his men are released from the service of the Philistines, freeing them from the potential obligation to fight against their countrymen, the Israelites.
They then return to their hometown and find that it has been destroyed by the Amalekites. David pursues the Amalekites and destroys them.
And then this series of stories ends with Saul’s death. The Philistines have defeated Israel, killed Saul’s sons, and mortally wounded Saul. Though he pleads with his servant to finish him off, Saul ultimately takes his own life.
Now I reviewed all of this with you because of the way the major figures from the previous several chapters all show up in our story today – David, Saul, the Philistines, and the Amalekites (though to be fair, the Philistines are only in the background – specifically related to Saul’s death).
So having said that, our passage today is pretty straightforward. However, at least one question arises from the text. As the story begins, we find out that a man has come to David from Saul’s camp, which we remember was destroyed by the Philistines. He reports the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, and when David asks how Saul died, this man reports that he himself killed Saul. Specifically, he reports that he found Saul dying and essentially finished him off.
However, if we recall the text from 1 Samuel 31, which reports the death of Saul, we get a different story. We read in chapter 31 that:
4 Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. 5 When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. 6 So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.1 Samuel 31: 4-6
So the question that arises from this passage is, was this man telling the truth?
As usual, there is some disagreement among commentators as to what to do with this discrepancy. But without digging into that discussion, it seems to me reasonable to assume that the report is true.
In short, I think we can safely assume that Saul, having fallen on his own sword, was dying but not quite dead when he was discovered (and this assumes that Saul’s armor-bearer was wrong or premature in deciding that Saul was dead). So we would then assume that the Amalekite was telling the truth to David in reporting that he in fact finished off Saul, but that Saul was essentially dead already by his own hand (thus, but 1 Sam. 31 and 2 Sam. 2 are true).
Now this is corroborated by the text in vv. 9-10:
9 “Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’
10 “So I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”2 Samuel 1: 9-10
So in other words, the man is confirming that Saul would have undoubtedly died by his self-inflicted wound, and that he merely finished him off. Essentially, this was an act of mercy.
So, further to this discussion, it seems to me that the man (the Amalekite) reported this whole incident to David in an effort to curry favour, specifically to ask for mercy. Remember, in chapter 30, David wiped out all the Amalekites who had attacked his home town. It might be reasonable to assume that this man is aware of this and might be afraid of David’s wrath. However, his own situation (remember, he is described as being with the Israelites) has been shattered by the Philistines. He has nowhere to turn, and so he runs to David, hoping for mercy.
Incidentally, if Saul had in fact already been dead when he was found by the Amalekite, there would be no need to explain his actions – he would merely have found Saul dead and was delivering the crown and armband to David. This further leads me to believe that his report is truthful.
Now why is this important? Well it’s important firstly because of the apparent contradiction between the two accounts (though we should also take into account textual criticism – that these stories come from different textual sources). But it’s also important because we need to make sense of David’s reaction.
Further on in the passage, we read that David reacted very negatively to the Amalekite’s report. In verse 14-16, after hearing from the man, David says:
14 David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”
15 Then David called one of his men and said, “Go, strike him down!” So he struck him down, and he died. 16 For David had said to him, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed.’”2 Samuel 1: 14-16
Now on the one hand, David’s reaction seems completely reasonable. This man has killed Saul, the Lord’s anointed. And as David says, that Saul was the Lord’s anointed was precisely the reason he himself refused to take Saul’s life on two separate occasions. But on the other hand, it seems to me that David’s refusal to kill Saul on the aforementioned occasions was specifically his own reluctance. That is, it wasn’t David’s place to take the life of the Lord’s anointed.
However, the actions of this Amalekite, firstly seem completely reasonable – that is, it’s an act of mercy that would actually help Saul avoid being tortured and abused the Philistines if he were to be captured alive (we discussed that briefly last time). Secondly, because of this sequence of events – Saul attempting to take his own life, and the Amalekite completing Saul’s initial action – keeps David from any wrongdoing (again, David did not take Saul’s life) and clears the way for David to finally step into his anointing. That is, David could now take his rightful place as king.
So why did David react so strongly? Well there are a number of elements that may provide insight. There may be an element of holy justice involved. That is, the aforementioned killing of the Lord’s anointed. In other words, David may be under some sort of obligation (perceived or otherwise) to take retribution on behalf of Saul, God’s anointed, Israel’s anointed king. There may also be a tie-in with Saul’s original obligation to utterly destroy the Amalekites. Further, the severity of David’s anger and sorrow may have to do with the fact that Jonathan had died as well (though not at the hand of the Amalekite). All of these things may play into why David reacted in the way that he did.
However, the most obvious – and this because this is what David says – has to do with the Amalekite’s killing of the Lord’s anointed. However, as we’ve already mentioned, we might have expected this to be mitigated in light of David’s own standing as God’s anointed – the one who was anointed to replace Saul. And to explore this further, I want to set this in the context of the question, how does this story function in the overall narrative? In other words, if we understand what’s going on in the story of Samuel, this may help us understand David’s response.
Now, as I often do, I want to make clear that we are firmly in the realm of my personal reflections on the matter. That is to say, I cannot say (and wouldn’t say) that this is in any way a definitive interpretation, based on solid exegesis. Rather, this is merely what I feel may be going on.
Commentator Dale Ralph Davis makes the point that this (Samuel) is not David’s story. Though we’ve been contemplating the person of David, especially as one after God’s own heart, this is not strictly speaking David’s story. It’s the story of God’s enduring faithfulness to the covenant with His people. It’s the story of God continuing to work out His redemptive purposes through the nation of Israel.
So perhaps David’s anger, his intense grief here are not towards the death/fall of Saul, but the state of God’s people (which we will see in the conflict between Saul’s son and David in the upcoming chapters). David (perhaps) understands that Israel is called to be God’s covenant people, but Saul’s death (which is a result of his unfaithfulness) is indicative of the state of the covenant. God’s people (i.e. Israel’s king) is far from God’s purposes, and this is the result. So, when David says, “Why aren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed,” we might (with a great deal of care and consideration) read that as something like, “why aren’t you afraid to lift your hand against God’s purposes?”
Now we do need to be careful. This isn’t obvious, and it certainly isn’t necessary when we read the following verses in this chapter – David’s lament for Saul, for Jonathan, and for Israel. But when I read vv. 19-27, it certainly does make a certain amount of sense (again, to me).
So, to sum up, what we see in today’s passage is that David finds out about Saul’s death. And though it seems this might be a relief, even a cause for celebration for David, it actually is a source of tremendous grief. And perhaps this is because David sees that Israel’s king, and therefore Israel herself, is not living in covenant relationship with the Lord God (and this is the result).
Now what do we do with this passage inasmuch as we consider how we might relate this part of scripture to our own faith walks? This isn’t a simple question to answer, partly because we want to resist the temptation (or the tendency) to find relevance in scripture only inasmuch as we know how to “use” it. To put it another way, we cannot separate out parts of the narrative in order to distill principles for living – things we must do and things we must not do. In yet other words, we want to avoid the temptation to over-simplify things.
But with that said, I want to suggest that what we see in David (in keeping with out trying to understand what it means that he was a man after God’s own heart) is a person who is concerned with God’s purposes and with God’s kingdom. Whether or not you are convinced by my suggestion that David’s grief was at the state of Israel rather than the fate of Saul, per se, what I hope is evident is that his concern was for God’s purposes and God’s kingdom rather than his own. That is, even if I’m wrong (or not entirely correct) about what David was upset about, and that he is in fact upset that God’s anointed has been killed, we have to accept the fact that he is upset that God’s anointed has been killed – as opposed to Saul per se. He isn’t upset because he had some deep, personal relationship with Saul. He is upset because this is God’s anointed.
And the point that I’m trying to make is, should not our concern be for God’s purposes and God’s kingdom as opposed to our own. And this because God’s purposes are ultimately about redeeming all that is wrong with the world, all that is wrong with ourselves. Because God’s purposes are about delivering us from the stain of sin so that we might be the people that He has meant us to be. But this happens only according to God’s purposes and God’s work. We may want God to do things a different way – our way – but inasmuch as we want something other than what God is doing, we want wrongly.
Just the other day, as I was listening to the radio, someone on the radio mentioned MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying). And I want to be clear and fair – as far as I can tell, this person was a comedian. Hence, his ultimate goal was to say something funny, not (necessarily) something truthful. But what he said essentially amounted to the notion that MAID is a good thing (or at least can be) because it honours the dignity of the person by privileging their freedom of choice. And again, I don’t want to be unfair in misrepresenting anyone’s position or opinion. But it seems to me that what this person was saying was fairly typical of our western culture.
To also be clear, I have a lot of sympathy for those who want to pursue medical assistance in dying. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. The logic of it makes sense to me. However, what this person said in passing – without real consideration or critical evaluation – was that the highest value, the most important principle was freedom of choice. And this to me is emblematic of western society (among other things, but still…). To put it another way, one of the highest values in western society (if not the highest) is that one pursues his or her own purposes and desires above all else. Anything that impinges upon one’s own desires, one’s own goals, one’s own values is to be rejected. To put it another way, in western society, the worst thing is to take away someone’s freedom of choice. The further problem is that we don’t examine or understand how we got here – how this and related values became the primary values of our culture. We just assume that this perspective is a normal (and correct) one.
The simple point that I’m trying to make is that, in our culture, in this society, it can be really hard to maintain a concern for God’s purposes. It can be really hard to believe that what God is doing to redeem creation is, in fact, the most important thing. And consequently, it can be really hard to maintain trust in God’s ways (in fulfilling His purposes).
And so, we need to put our trust in God. Of course, we know this – at least I hope we do. And I’m not suggesting that this is easy to do. It’s not easy to do because on many levels, God’s ways and means are beyond us (which isn’t to say that they are completely unknowable.
But what I would suggest is that we must examine ourselves. We must examine our own motives, our own values, and our own ways and means. This is part of what repentance is all about. Repentance is to ask forgiveness for the things that we have done against God’s purposes. But it’s also to examine why we did those things in the first place. Repentance is to examine how our hearts and minds are contrary to the heart and mind of God – and to change them (or rather, allow ourselves to be changed by the Holy Spirit).
This is what Saul failed to do. In his sin, Saul never repented. He never allowed his purposes to be God’s purposes. He never allowed his kingship to be in service of God’s kingdom. But David – though again, far from perfect – sought to be a man after God’s own heart. This must be our desire as well. This must be our purpose. For it’s only in God’s heart that we can find true life.