How the mighty have fallen: the grief of the godly
In spite of the cynics’ raised eye-brows David’s song of lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:17-27 is a genuine heart-felt expression of grief at the loss of his king and his friend. This is not political posturing but rather a fine example of how a godly man dealt with the grief of bereavement.
David commanded that the song be published and taught to the people of Judah, not just because it was a fitting epitaph, but he would have his people learn how to handle bereavement. How do we cope when a loved one is taken from us? How should our faith react to the unexpected call of grief? How will the Christian parent handle the ‘unnatural’ death of a child? Grief is everywhere in life and none can escape it. We cannot escape the earth’s gravitational pull that keeps our feet upon terra firma, so none can escape the ubiquitous presence of grief in life. Death has an appointment with us all and throughout our lives it leaves its calling card on our doorstep as we see family and friends taken from us. If death is inescapable then so too is grief. Perhaps this is why the Preacher says it is ‘better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting’ (Ecc. 7:2). What then would David have us learn about coping with grief?
A grieving process
Perhaps the first thing we should note is David’s implicit acknowledgement of a grieving process. He took time to put into words his thoughts on the sad loss of Jonathan and Saul. He went through the process of receiving the news, allowing time to assimilate it, considering its consequences and how to make an appropriate public response. In this we see not a moribund spirit but rather the exercise of a lively faith. The poem is a wonderful example of how faith deals with the grieving process. Here is the measured response of a man who understands that grief cannot be ignored or rushed but has to be worked through. Christians are not exempt from this process. We are not stone-cold stoics who believe it is unspiritual to let a ‘small matter’ like grief affect our spiritual equilibrium. Paul didn’t tell the Thessalonians not to sorrow but rather not to sorrow as ‘though we had no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13). Luther once said, ‘you learn your theology most where your sorrows take you.’
No vain regrets
Second, the poem is remarkable for what is absent from David’s contemplation. His focus is on the sadness of their loss not on any recriminations over what had happened in their life. Absent is any vain regret about what Jonathan could have achieved. More remarkable still we find no harsh words, no bitterness over Saul’s treatment of him; surely of all people David could have said so much about Saul’s malevolent attitude towards him! But his silence is an eloquent expression of a gracious wisdom in handling loss. Grief on its own is hard to bear but add to it recrimination or vain regret and it becomes a very heady brew; too heady for most to handle.
Third, we see David’s honesty in handling his grief. He was unafraid to express his emotion as he experienced deep stirring over the loss of his best friend, father-in-law, king and even the foe whose machinations God had used to strengthen David’s faith. He was broken at the news of their loss and was honest enough to confess it. Is not Calvin a little too harsh when he says David’s grief here was ‘too excessive’? David as a warrior had seen too much of life in the raw to fall into the fallacy of trying to sweep grief under the carpet. He did not try to hide away from its dark reality and understood the value of being honest in the grieving process; yes, it really did hurt.
It’s a fallacy that grown-ups do not cry; it is unChristian to suggest it’s undignified to express our grief; it’s dishonest to keep it bottled up. Did not the ‘perfect man’ who had power over death itself weep over the grave of His friend Lazarus (John 11:35) as He saw the destruction death created? Jesus was simply being honest about death’s unopposed reign over the human race. It is not wrong for Christians to be honest and admit that their emotions are wrung out in grief over the loss of a loved one.
Fourthly, we see David kept control over his grief. The very act of composing this ode enabled him to manage his grief and reminds us that he took great care to channel his emotions as he strove to find appropriate words to express his sorrow at the loss of these two men. He did not give in to a voluptuous out-pouring of words as if an emotional dam had burst inside him. Instead he carefully chose to consider what was best about them in their lives as leaders, family members and friends. He chose to exercise self-control and not give in to an emotional out-pouring that could lead to anger and regret. Even in grief Christians must learn to exercise a spirit of self-control (2 Tim. 1:7).
This process of managing his grief was greatly helped by placing a biblical perspective on the news. Three times in his poem David laments, ‘how the mighty have fallen.’ No matter who we are no-one escapes what one has called, ‘the catholic reality of death.’ Sooner or later all end up here: King Saul, his relentless persecutor, for so long a recipient of God’s loving forbearance and kindness, falls. The godly Jonathan, such a firm friend, cut off in his prime, falls. If the mighty fall to death’s supreme reign how can any stand? Life is a serious business and we had better be ready to not only depart ourselves, but to see loved ones depart before us and so handle the grief that goes with that rocky terrain of life’s journey.
Finally, we have to admire how David surrendered to grief. As he recalls Jonathan’s care for him in life David speaks of it as a love that surpassed that of women. This is no closet homosexual tendency but rather genuine sorrow at losing the faithful and loving commitment of such a friend. It was almost too much when he considered the loss of such a trustworthy and dear friend. It was as if David were saying, ‘Ok death, I know that you have won. This love is now lost to me. I cannot ever get him back. I surrender.’ There is no ‘Alamo spirit’ here, rather he realised he had to let go. There is an appropriate surrender to grief that cannot be avoided in order to exorcise its pain. Is there any sadder sight than seeing one living with resentment at loss because they refuse to accept the inevitable, refuse to surrender to the grief that arises from death’s sway?
The last word
David’s surrender was not nihilistic capitulation for his words here must be contrasted to another song he wrote in which he expresses a confident faith that death would not have the final word (Ps. 16:9-11). David surrendered because he had a hope in God’s power and he foresaw the day death would surrender its reign to One who would rise victorious over it. God would have the last word over death. David’s greater Son would come and would say, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live’ (John 11:25). To such a One all grief may be brought to find healing and hope.
John Woolley is the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Cardiff.