Saturday of Week 2 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1-4,11-12,19,23-27

Today we begin reading the Second Book of Samuel, which takes up immediately where the previous book finished. Originally, there was only one book. As it opens, in a passage full of deep emotion, we again see the extraordinary generosity and noble spirit of David.

At the end of the previous chapter (the last in 1 Samuel), we are told that the Israelites under Saul had been badly defeated by the Philistines. Saul had been wounded in the abdomen by an arrow. Rather than be captured by “uncircumcised” enemies he asked his armour-bearer to put an end to his life. The armour-bearer was too afraid to do such a thing to his king, so Saul took his sword and fell on it. The armour-bearer then killed himself too. In addition, the three sons of Saul also perished.

As our reading opens, a man with his clothes in tatters says he has escaped from the Israelite camp. He has news that the army had fled Saul and his son Jonathan and both been killed in the battle.

However (and this is not contained in today’s reading), when asked how he knew about all this, the young man said he had come across the wounded Saul leaning on his spear. He begged the young man to kill him as he was in great pain. The young man, knowing that the king would not survive his wound, put an end to the king’s life. He brought back the king’s crown and armlet, expecting to get a reward from David, who, he expected, would be happy at the news.

This account does not square with what was said earlier at the end of 1 Samuel and belongs to another tradition. Today, our reading continues by describing the effect of the news on David. He is overcome with grief and, in the way of the times, tears his garments as did all his followers. He mourned and wept and fasted from food because of the death of Saul and Jonathan, as did many of his soldiers. Though Saul had tried so often to kill David, David remembers only the good things Saul had done and his courage in battle.

Then (and it is omitted from our reading), the young man who brought the news was himself executed by David for having killed the Lord’s anointed. He was especially guilty because he was not a circumcised Israelite, but an Amalekite whose people had just been routed in battle by David.

The last part of our reading consists of part of a funeral elegy which David chanted for Saul and Jonathan. Following the tradition that David was a musician, he expresses his grief in a song. In it, Saul is called “your glory O Israel”.

For all his shortcomings, he had been chosen by God as leader of his people and had won many significant victories over Israel’s enemies. David sings:

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!

This phrase perhaps more accurately implies, “How [could] the mighty have fallen?” and forms a kind of refrain for this song – repeated twice more in the elegy. David’s words contain no suggestion of bitterness towards Saul, who had tried more than once to be rid of him, but rather recall the good qualities and accomplishments of Saul and Jonathan.

There is genuine grief in his words:

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.

Even though Jonathan opposed his father’s treatment of David and came to David’s defence more than once, he still gave his life beside his father in defence of Israel.

But it is particularly Jonathan’s death which pains David most deeply:

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.

In describing the intensity of his love for Jonathan, David is simply calling attention to Jonathan’s commitment to his friend, a commitment arising from his conviction that it was David who would succeed to his father’s throne rather than himself (see 1 Sam 20:13-16). David is obviously deeply touched by such selflessness and the love which inspires it.

So, today’s reading is about love and friendship and the pain of loss when friends are taken away from us. Let us too remember those people who were part of our lives and have died. They include those who have wanted to do us harm as well as those who have added a beautiful dimension to our lives. These both need our prayers – in one case, our love and, in the other, our forgiveness.

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