A sermon preached July 8, 2012 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Death seemed to clarify things for David. The deaths of Saul and his son Jonathan did, at least. Because, while they lived, things were complicated between the three of them. David loved Saul and Jonathan. He also disagreed with them. Saul was jealous of David. David was torn between the father and his son. David’s political aspirations could only be seen in light of their threat to Jonathan’s inheritance. Their story reads like a soap opera, full of drama, intrigue, miscommunication, and passion.
Life is complicated. Love. Hate. War. Intrigue. Emotion. Betrayal.
But in David’s lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, there is none of that. It is a hymn of love, longing, respect, grief and pain. The betrayal, jealousy, and misunderstandings were left in the dust of the battlefield where their bodies fell.
And I love this hymn. Don’t get me wrong. It is beautiful to hope that when you die someone will sing a song like this for you.
Because a person’s death should call us to remember the best of who that person was in life. To consider how they were uniquely themselves and how did they do what nobody else could have done.
And Saul and Jonathan were worth remembering with great praise.
But I hope this wasn’t the only song David sang for Jonathan and Saul. I hope he also sang the song about how Saul was an insecure egomaniac who made his life much more difficult than necessary. I hope he sang the song of apology and remorse. I hope David sang apologies to Jonathan for triangulating Saul and Jonathan, asking Jonathan to report on his father’s movements, leading Jonathan to have to choose one over the other.
I hope there was honesty in David’s grief and lamentation in equal measure to the glory and praise. I pray that for all of us, actually. That we may be lamented for all we were, and also for what we were not.
Did you notice the refrain in the hymn?
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!
How many of you thought that phrase was from Shakespeare or maybe Homer? It’s okay. You’re not alone. This phrase has taken on a life of its own in American culture.
But today it is never said sincerely with love, as David laments over the loss of Saul and Jonathan.
When we hear it said today, it is often with a sense of schadenfreude, or joy at someone’s misfortune, as a wealthy or famous person stumbles and ends up in court wearing an orange jumpsuit instead of their designer clothes, their mug shot plastered across the tabloids. How the mighty have fallen.
Perhaps you picture Saddam Hussein’s statue, tumbling to the ground.
How the mighty have fallen.
It is sarcastic, something I would say, for example, were I to ever beat my husband in a sporting competition, like running, or a game of Yahtzee.
How the mighty have fallen.
And if anyone had cause to be snarky over the death of Saul, it was David. Saul had tried to kill him many times. Saul had killed everyone he could find who had helped David. Yet David refused to kill Saul on the two occasions when Saul was at his mercy. He refused to rejoice in Saul’s downfall. He refused to celebrate his own ascendancy that came at great cost to Saul.
And while there is plenty to say against David (the wife of Uriah the Hittite anyone?) in this moment, he is at his best. He is restrained. He is generous. He offers up to the people a hymn to help them frame their remembrance of Saul and Jonathan in the most positive light.
Perhaps because he knew how easy it is to go from mighty to fallen. David had a front row seat to Saul’s decline. He saw how the hero quickly lost his standing.
And so he did not rejoice in that, at least.
I invite you to listen for this phrase on the news and in your own conversation.
Is it being said with glee? Is it being said without any indication from the speaker that they could also fall? Is there any generosity of spirit for the fallen, formerly mighty person?
Because I think this can be a cruel world in which we live. And celebrating the downfall of others makes it colder and crueler.
While I have been spending time with this text, the contrast between David’s original use of the phrase, and the way we have changed it, has seemed stark. I am not always one to opine for the “good old days”, which, in my experience, were not always so “good”, but in this situation I do. I wish we didn’t rejoice so much when our politicians prove to be humans. I wish we didn’t take such delight in the downfall of the people who we should never have placed on pedestals to begin with. I wish, like David in this hymn, we had more compassion for the people in our lives and on the news.
As we read on in David’s story, we’ll watch him fall too. It won’t be pretty. But neither are our lives. We climb to the top and then we stumble. We figure one thing out and then we completely mess up on the next. As people who are journeying together, let’s remember this song that David wrote down and instructed the people to learn:
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.
How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
And let’s seek to sing these songs for each other. Not to the exclusion of our faults, but to leave enough room for grace to break its way into our messy lives. Amen