Israel’s King Saul was a tragic figure or a grave disappointment or, perhaps, some combination of the two. The young David had ample opportunity to consider the options as Saul pursued his doomed and jealous efforts to be done with this shepherd and poet warrior.
Yet when Saul was dead—and with him, his son Jonathan—David spared no effort to elevate the defunct monarch’s legacy. It is too easy to cite realpolitik as the sole explanation of David’s verbose generosity. By this explanation, David eulogized Saul because it was in his interests to curry favor with that king’s partisans now that death in battle had removed him from the scene.
No doubt political calculations were part of the mix. Yet David’s remembered legacy turns in part on the moving way in which he remembered his dead friend Jonathan and his half-sane father.
Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell 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.
You 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.
From 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.
It is difficult to believe that authentic grief is absent from these lines. David is painted upon the biblical historian’s canvas with brushstrokes most complex. Yet when all has been considered, the visceral courage of David’s generosity toward those with whom blood, covenant, or shared peril have joined him must go some way towards explaining why it is difficult not to be moved by this man.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
In point of fact, Saul and Jonathan were divided in life. Jonathan’s grief over his father’s hostility toward David ruptured family solidarity and led to a pledge of fealty towards David that was all but treasonous toward his father and king. Yet David conveniently overlooks this harsh fact, for Saul is dead and can no longer work his mischief. The future belongs to David. He will not, at least in this moment, stain it with the the contemptible truths that have shaped the past.
In the end, though, David will praise Jonathan for a love he never found in Saul.
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
David might have seized the opportunity fate afforded him with a steely grip and consolidated it at the point of the spear.
Instead, there are words. Appreciative, elevating, passionate words that speak in the exaggerated tones of the truth that best frames the harsh passages of death. There will be time enough for settling scores, crafting tribal alignments, and acquiring the properties of a tragic ruler whom death has removed.
This day belongs to eulogy and its remembrance of men with an exaggeration that tells the most important truth while relaxing regret’s stringent calculations.
Truth be told, we remember David more by these words than Saul or Jonathan. There is no harm in that.