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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 17–27
Verses 17–27

When David had rent his clothes, mourned, and wept, and fasted, for the death of Saul, and done justice upon him who made himself guilty of it, one would think he had made full payment of the debt of honour he owed to his memory; yet this is not all: we have here a poem he wrote on that occasion; for he was a great master of his pen as well as of his sword. By this elegy he designed both to express his own sorrow for this great calamity and to impress the like on the minds of others, who ought to lay it to heart. The putting of lamentations into poems made them, 1. The more moving and affecting. The passion of the poet, or singer, is, by this way, wonderfully communicated to the readers and hearers. 2. The more lasting. Thus they were made, not only to spread far, but to continue long, from generation to generation. Those might gain information by poems that would not read history. Here we have,

I. The orders David gave with this elegy (2 Sam. 1:18): He bade them teach the children of Judah (his own tribe, whatever others did) the use of the bow, either. 1. The bow used in war. Not but that the children of Judah knew how to use the bow (it was so commonly used in war, long before this, that the sword and bow were put for all weapons of war, Gen. 48:22), but perhaps they had of late made more use of slings, as David in killing Goliath, because cheaper, and David would have them now to see the inconvenience of these (for it was the archers of the Philistines that bore so hard upon Saul, 1 Sam. 21:3), and to return more generally to the use of the bow, to exercise themselves in this weapon, that they might be in a capacity to avenge the death of their prince upon the Philistines, and to outdo them at their own weapon. It was a pity but those that had such good heads and hearts as the children of Judah should be well armed. David hereby showed his authority over and concern for the armies of Israel, and set himself to rectify the errors of the former reign. But we find that the companies which had now come to David to Ziklag were armed with bows (1 Chron. 12:2); therefore, 2. Some understand it either of some musical instrument called a bow (to which he would have the mournful ditties sung) or of the elegy itself: He bade them teach the children of Judah Kesheth, the bow, that is, this song, which was so entitled for the sake of Jonathan’s bow, the achievements of which are here celebrated. Moses commanded Israel to learn his song (Deut. 31:19), so David his. Probably he bade the Levites teach them. It is written in the book of Jasher, there it was kept upon record, and thence transcribed into this history. That book was probably a collection of state-poems; what is said to be written in that book (Josh. 10:13) is also poetical, a fragment of an historical poem. Even songs would be forgotten and lost if they were not committed to writing, that best conservatory of knowledge.

II. The elegy itself. It is not a divine hymn, nor given by inspiration of God to be used in divine service, nor is there any mention of God in it; but it is a human composition, and therefore was inserted, not in the book of Psalms (which, being of divine original, is preserved), but in the book of Jasher, which, being only a collection of common poems, is long since lost. This elegy proves David to have been,

1. A man of an excellent spirit, in four things:—

(1.) He was very generous to Saul, his sworn enemy. Saul was his father-in-law, his sovereign, and the anointed of the Lord; and therefore, though he had done him a great deal of wrong, David does not wreak his revenge upon his memory when he is in his grave; but like a good man, and a man of honour, [1.] He conceals his faults; and, though there was no preventing their appearance in his history, yet they should not appear in this elegy. Charity teaches us to make the best we can of every body and to say nothing of those of whom we can say no good, especially when they are gone. Deut. mortuis nil nisi bonumSay nothing but good concerning the dead. We ought to deny ourselves the satisfaction of making personal reflections upon those who have been injurious to us, much more drawing their character thence, as if every man must of necessity be a bad man that has done ill by us. Let the corrupt part of the memory be buried with the corrupt part of the man—earth to earth, ashes to ashes; let the blemish be hidden and a veil drawn over the deformity. [2.] He celebrates that which was praiseworthy in him. He does not commend him for that which he was not, says nothing of his piety or fidelity. Those funeral commendations which are gathered out of the spoils of truth are not at all to the praise of those on whom they are bestowed, but very much the dispraise of those who unjustly misplace them. But he has this to say in honour of Saul himself, First, That he was anointed with oil (2 Sam. 1:21), the sacred oil, which signified his elevation to, and qualification for, the government. Whatever he was otherwise, the crown of the anointing oil of his God was upon him, as is said of the high priest (Lev. 21:12), and on that account he was to be honoured, because God, the fountain of honour, had honoured him. Secondly, That he was a man of war, a mighty man (2 Sam. 1:19-21), that he had often been victorious over the enemies of Israel and vexed them whithersoever he turned, 1 Sam. 14:47. His sword returned not empty, but satiated with blood and spoil, 2 Sam. 1:22. His disgrace and fall at last must not make his former successes and services to be forgotten. Though his sun set under a cloud, time was when it shone brightly. Thirdly, That take him with Jonathan he was a man of a very agreeable temper, that recommended himself to the affections of his subjects (2 Sam. 1:23): Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant. Jonathan was always so, and Saul was so as long as he concurred with him. Take them together, and in the pursuit of the enemy, never were men more bold, more brave; they were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions. Observe, Those that were most fierce and fiery in the camp were no less sweet and lovely in the court, as amiable to the subject as they were formidable to the foe; a rare combination of softness and sharpness they had, which makes any man’s temper very happy. It may be understood of the harmony and affection that for the most part subsisted between Saul and Jonathan: they were lovely and pleasant one to another, Jonathan a dutiful son, Saul an affectionate father; and therefore dear to each other in their lives, and in their death they were not divided, but kept close together in the stand they made against the Philistines, and fell together in the same cause. Fourthly, That he had enriched his country with the spoils of conquered nations, and introduced a more splendid attire. When they had a king like the nations, they must have clothes like the nations; and herein he was, in a particular manner, obliging to his female subjects, 2 Sam. 1:24. The daughters of Israel he clothed in scarlet, which was their delight.

(2.) He was very grateful to Jonathan, his sworn friend. Besides the tears he shed over him, and the encomiums he gives of him in common with Saul, he mentions him with some marks of distinction (2 Sam. 1:25): O Jonathan! thou wast slain in thy high places! which (compared with 2 Sam. 1:19) intimates that he meant him by the beauty of Israel, which, he there says, was slain upon the high places. He laments 16e2 Jonathan as his particular friend (2 Sam. 1:26): My brother, Jonathan; not so much because of what he would have been to him if he had lived, very serviceable no doubt in his advancement to the throne and instrumental to prevent those long struggles which, for want of his assistance, he had with the house of Saul (had this been the only ground of his grief it would have been selfish), but he lamented him for what he had been: “Very pleasant hast thou been unto me; but that pleasantness is now over, and I am distressed for thee.” He had reason to say that Jonathan’s love to him was wonderful; surely never was the like, for a man to love one who he knew was to take the crown over his head, and to be so faithful to his rival: this far surpassed the highest degree of conjugal affection and constancy. See here, [1.] That nothing is more delightful in this world than a true friend, that is wise and good, that kindly receives and returns our affection, and is faithful to us in all our true interests. [2.] That nothing is more distressful than the loss of such a friend; it is parting with a piece of one’s self. It is the vanity of this world that what is most pleasant to us we are most liable to be distressed in. The more we love the more we grieve.

(3.) He was deeply concerned for the honour of God; for this is what he has an eye to when he fears lest the daughters of the uncircumcised, that are out of covenant with God, should triumph over Israel, and the God of Israel, 2 Sam. 1:20. Good men are touched in a very sensible part by the reproaches of those that reproach God.

(4.) He was deeply concerned for the public welfare. It was the beauty of Israel that was slain (2 Sam. 1:19) and the honour of the public that was disgraced: The mighty have fallen (this is three times lamented, (2 Sam. 1:19, 25, 27), and so the strength of the people is weakened. Public losses are most laid to heart by men of public spirit. David hoped God would make him instrumental to repair those losses and yet laments them.

2. A man of a fine imagination, as well as a wise and holy man. The expressions are all excellent, and calculated to work upon the passions. (1.) The embargo he would fain lay upon Fame is elegant (2 Sam. 1:20): Tell it not in Gath. It grieved him to the heart to think that it would be proclaimed in the cities of the Philistines, and that they would insult over Israel upon it, and the more in remembrance of the triumphs of Israel over them formerly, when they sang, Saul has slain his thousands; for this would now be retorted. (2.) The curse he entails on the mountains of Gilboa, the theatre on which this tragedy was acted: Let there be no dew upon you, nor fields of offerings, 2 Sam. 1:21. This is a poetical strain, like that of Job, Let the day perish wherein I was born. Not as if David wished that any part of the land of Israel might be barren, but, to express his sorrow for the thing, he speaks with a seeming indignation at the place. Observe, [1.] How the fruitfulness of the earth depends upon heaven. The worst thing he could wish to the mountains of Gilboa was barrenness and unprofitableness to man: those are miserable that are useless. It was the curse Christ pronounced on the fig-tree, Never fruit grow on thee more, and that took effect—the fig-tree withered away: this, on the mountains of Gilboa, did not. But, when he wished them barren, he wished there might be no rain upon them; and, if the heavens be brass, the earth will soon be iron. [2.] How the fruitfulness of the earth must therefore be devoted to heaven, which is intimated in his calling the fruitful fields fields of offerings. Those fruits of their land that were offered to God were the crown and glory of it: and therefore the failure of the offerings is the saddest consequent of the failure of the corn. See Joel 1:9. To want that wherewith we should honour God is worse than to want that wherewith we should sustain ourselves. This is the reproach David fastens upon the mountains of Gilboa, which, having been stained with royal blood, thereby forfeited celestial dews. In this elegy Saul had a more honourable interment than that which the men of Jabesh-Gilead gave him.

David had paid due respect to the memory of Saul his prince and Jonathan his friend, and what he did was as much his praise as theirs; he is now considering what is to be done next. Saul is dead, now therefore David arise. I. By direction from God he went up to Hebron, and was there anointed king, 2 Sam. 2:1-4. II. He returned thanks to the men of Jabesh-Gilead for burying Saul, 2 Sam. 2:5-7. III. Ishbosheth, the son of Saul, is set up in opposition to him, 2 Sam. 2:8-11. IV. A warm encounter happens between David’s party and Ishbosheth’s, in which, 1. Twelve of each side engaged hand to hand and were all slain, 2 Sam. 2:12-16. 2. Saul’s party was beaten, 2 Sam. 2:17. 3. Asahel, on David’s side, was slain by Abner, 2 Sam. 2:18-23. 4. Joab, at Abner’s request, sounds a retreat, 2 Sam. 2:24-28. 5. Abner makes the best of his way (2 Sam. 2:29), and the loss on both sides is computed, 2 Sam. 2:3-32. So that here we have an account of a civil war in Israel, which, in process of time, ended in the complete settlement of David on the throne.