“The sword of Saul returned not empty.”
When David learned of the defeat of Israel and the death of Saul, he first reacted in sorrow. He tore his clothes in mourning and fasted until the evening (2 Sam. 1:11–12). The second half of 2 Samuel 1 records the song he composed in lament. It could be titled, “How the mighty have fallen.” It is very relevant in times when leadership that once appeared valiant, and in which so many people trusted deeply, falls.
It would appear that David had just received a great blessing. It would appear that the opportunity he needed to take the throne had just opened widely before him. His chief persecutor was dead. Saul, the man who tried to kill David, who enlisted his men to kill David, who led entire armies to kill David, who took David’s wife from him, who turned the vast majority of the nation against David as if he were a terrorist, who tried to kill his own son because of David, who killed the entire priesthood over false charges because of David—this wicked ruler was dead. Saul, who committed so much other wickedness, who took credit for all the successes of David in battle, who defied God in sparing Agag (1 Sam. 15), who usurped the priestly role of Samuel, who installed the tyrannies of which Samuel had warned from the beginning (1 Sam. 8), who had ignominiously ended his life in séance and a “last supper” with a witch, and then suicide—this wicked ruler was finally dead. On the surface, it seems like the story should seamlessly transition to David on the throne—should not the populace welcome a truly righteous ruler in place of Saul?
But we must remember that Saul’s tyranny had perverted the hearts and minds of most of the nation. They wanted a military-industrial nation. They embraced the strong central government. Great leaders always build a loyal following, even sometimes if their lives are built on lies and filled with great sin. When such great leaders fall, there will always be a loyal remnant that defends them and exalts them in their sin. The path forward will have to look past this, reform it where possible, but move on despite it in some places. David knew the throne was his, but also knew he had a long uphill battle to wage in terms of public relations, among other things.
David did not waste time in extended personal lament. Also, despite all of what Saul had done against him, David totally ignored any feeling of personal vengeance. Where he did dwell on the past, it was only in positives—and that only for the sake of moving God’s people forward. He knew he had to move quickly and decisively for the sake of national unity. He had to assert leadership, lest the Philistines completely overrun the nation. In the end, the most important lesson to learn here is that when great leaders fall, the reaction of God’s people must not be to cry forever, nor to devour the fallen—to dissect and exhibit the depths of his sins, etc.—but to do what is necessary to move forward in terms of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is bigger than any mere human. It is Him and His commands to which we must dedicate our lives, not personalities.
For the time being, let us summarize how David handled this challenge. In short, he issued a public lament in the form of song, and he started a training program for young men. Both of these are necessary: the first galvanizes and unifies the public mind; the second implements practical action. The first is a mere abstraction without the second. The second lacks focus and principle, and risks chaos, without the first.
The first aspect is obvious: it takes up the whole half of the chapter. Perhaps David’s main point here is to publicize the fact that he was never Saul’s enemy. “How the mighty have fallen” is not a rejoicing over God’s judgment upon wicked Saul—though Saul’s fall was indeed God’s judgment upon that man’s wickedness (1 Sam. 28:16–19; 1 Chron. 10:13–14). Rather, the song is a rejoicing over what greatness could be said to have come through Saul and Jonathan to Israel.
David is positive perhaps to a fault. He overly praises Saul to the point of publishing exaggerations and even falsehoods. Was Saul really the glory of Israel (v. 19)? Was it really true that Saul and Jonathan were not divided in life and death (v. 23), considering Saul had come close to murdering Jonathan on two occasions, and had cursed Jonathan and his mother? Was Saul’s clothing of the daughters of Israel luxuriously in scarlet (v. 24) really praiseworthy, considering his wealth had come confiscatory policy (1 Sam. 8)? David was exaggerating. That this was for national unity, we can safely say David is propagandizing out of perceived political necessity.
There are, however, important things here to ponder. However inexcusable David’s exaggerations may have been in terms of truth, and whatever other purposes we can discern for him doing so, we must acknowledge that he was merely accommodating the propaganda to the mental and spiritual situation of the people. Remember, this was a people who demanded a great, manly, military leader (1 Sam 8–12), despite being warned of such a great fall ahead of time. This was a people completely awed by Saul’s physical stature—a head taller than everyone and of great physique and pedigree (1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23–24). He had the outward appearance of great manliness, though he was selfish, immoral, and cowardly inside. But the people embraced the façade, and Saul undoubtedly played it up.
The same is true for many great leaders today: they publish themselves as the essence of manhood and manliness, and respective audiences eat it up. You have leaders like Vladimir Putin constantly pictured this way: hunting shirtless in Siberia, flying airplanes, taking control; or George W. Bush climbing out of cockpits in a flight suit aboard an aircraft carrier. While there are no doubt manly men who do these things, the photo ops are drooled over by men who wish—and need—to present themselves as manly for public consumption. And such an idea of manliness is rampant today. Even some Christian leaders attempt to present themselves as such: exploring dangerous rainforests, hunting the African Savannah, swashbuckling, historical war reenactments, etc. But these things are too often only a façade of true manliness. When the substance is lacking beneath the façade, or darkness lurks there, too, great disappointments lie ahead.
When such great men fall, we must be led to take account of ourselves, and to be reminded of what true leadership and manliness really is. It rarely seeks the spotlight. It rarely operates according to adventure and heroic exploit. Instead, it seeks quiet and constant obedience to God’s Law despite the many temptations that lay around. The discipline and courage to reject accolade, self-promotion, and when it presents itself, corruption, are of the essence of biblical manliness. As Calvin comments when he preaches on this passage, “After a man has become rich, he is well advised to regulate himself carefully and keep himself under the law.” And why? “[F]or it is certain that God is testing him.” Testing him, that is, not by persecution and trial, but with the possession of power. Power is the great Madame that fells many great men, and she has many temptresses to seduce those who accede within her realm. When such great men fall, we must be careful to note how much we have become influenced by them, or become like them, specifically in the areas of those façades.
When such great men fall, there is great lament and fear among those who trusted them. They will be tempted by anger and fear, but most importantly by despair in kingdom work. These people need direction and leadership. They first need to know that the kingdom is bigger than the leader in whom they invested so much. Christians too often put near-idolatrous trust in some leaders and pastors anyway. The kingdom is the focus, not the personalities that arise within it. When the opposite grows true, a Mt. Gilboa will often be on the horizon. God crushes the leader and the public trust along with him. But this is opportunity for correction to appropriate focus, not the end of the world.
David’s song here is, in my opinion, already partaking in too much of the same spirit of false reality. Perhaps—perhaps—it was necessary for the state of the people, but I believe he was already beginning to compromise in the type of spirit that would later culminate in Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah.
Nevertheless, David’s song took the important step of not dwelling upon the great leader’s sins, or publicly trashing the leader’s reputation as much as possible for personal advancement. David knew there were enough Philistines around to accomplish that purpose. Thus he directed, Don’t publish this in Gath or Ashkelon (v. 20)—the Philistine cities. The main thing needed to be done was move forward. Saul had fallen. Saul was dead. Pieces now needed picking up, and new leadership asserted.
This does not mean, however, that just any leadership will do. What we see from the Amalekite who claimed to have finished off Saul (from the first half of this chapter), is a corrupt social climber who intended to advance his own career by ingratiating himself with David. He thought he bore news David would love to hear, and for which David would reward him. This Amalekite learned otherwise, and in God’s providence, he ended up going were Saul should have sent him already in 1 Samuel 15.
When great leaders fall, therefore, beware of two things: the jaunts and ridicules of the enemies without, and the grasping of opportunistic would-be leaders from within. No, leadership must be true, and it must be trained.
Toward this end, the second aspect of David’s program was to implement public training. This aspect is not obvious, as it is often lost or obscured in modern translations. The text of the Hebrew literally says of David, “And he said to teach the sons of Judah bow.” Two schools of thought have opened up to interpret this: the older takes this as saying that along with the widespread publication of his song, David ordered that men be instructed in the use of the bow and arrow. The King James reads this way, and Calvin understood it this way. Modern readers, however, think this sounds too out-of-place between verse 17 which introduces the song of lament, and the song itself. So they interpret “bow” to be the title of the song. Thus they want this to read that David published this song which he entitled “The Bow” and ordered all the sons of Judah to sing “The Bow.” I do not know why this interpretation is the most popular. I think it is a stretch. It seems to me that the common sense interpretation is that along with the song, David implemented a practical national policy to reinvigorate the spirit of the nation. The Philistines, after all, were sitting just over the horizon. This was no time to sit around pouting. The song itself is a lament, but is meant to inspire a sense of national greatness and unity in the face of an impending enemy. The training program would build directly upon that, and in a very needed, practical way.
The same is true today. When great leaders fall, we do not need to orient ourselves to morbid introspections, infighting, or despair, but to real practical steps to move forward and beyond the Mt. Gilboas of our day. The enemy is before us. Great battles and yet also great opportunities lie ahead. It is time for succession and time for preparation for advance. Do not despair. Do not give up. Do not mourn for long. Take up the tools of dominion, and the weapons of spiritual warfare. Embrace the true essence of manliness in quiet but uncompromising faith in God and His Word. Train your sons and daughters in the use of that bow. Don’t look back. Look forward. Our David is Christ. Our Christ is The Man, and He will not fail you.
How the mighty have fallen! Now turn your hearts and minds to He who is mightiest of all. You have a range of projects before you. Put your hand to one of them. There is much already said, and more to say, on this topic. Get busy, and get ready for more.