The books of I and II Samuel tell the stories of three men who rule over Israel: Samuel (the last judge of Israel), Saul (the first king of Israel), and David (the second and greatest king of Israel). The largest parts of both books are devoted to David (interestingly, the namesake of the books is only a major character in the first third of the first book). First Samuel tells of David as a young man who watches his father’s sheep, of his coming out party as the slayer of Goliath, of his becoming a mighty man of war who provokes the jealousy of Saul, and finally as an outlaw running for his life from an enraged and slightly insane Saul who knows David is God’s choice to usurp him as king. The second book of Samuel is the story of King David from the time he ascends to the throne after Saul’s death through his middle years and disastrous sin with Bathsheba, to his old age and final days preparing for Solomon to succeed him.
II Samuel is thus an account of David at his greatest and worst. He goes down as the standard for all kings who follow him, as the namesake of the Messianic line, but also as an example of the enormous ramifications of selfish sin. Studying the life of a man after God’s own heart whose kingly line is promised to last forever, therefore, is worthwhile because of what he teaches us about living righteously, his concern for the name of God, his desire to obey both out of fear and love, his love of God that outweighs any fear of man, and the example he sets of how to respond to egregious sin.
As the book opens, David and his men have been running from Saul for years and they live in a city in Philistia named Ziklag. They have just come from a battle against a band of Amalekites that burned their city and kidnapped their families. Thankfully the family members were all recovered, and David and his men returned to Ziklag two days ago with not only their possessions but also plunder from the Amalekites.
The reason David and his men were away from Ziklag to start with is because they were preparing to march with the Philistines against the armies of Israel (this is how much David’s life has been turned upside down because of Saul’s irrational rage – he’s had to flee to the Philistines and actually convince them he’s on their side). At the last minute, some Philistine commanders who remembered all their battles against David complained to the king that he shouldn’t be in their ranks and he was sent home. It was after coming back to Ziklag that he and his men found it burned and their families gone.
As David and his men now rest (or perhaps begin to rebuild) in their ruined city (the scene presumably shows them sitting among the embers of burned houses and buildings), they don’t know how the battle went between the Philistines and Israel. They know the battle occurred, but they don’t have any news as to who prevailed and who lived or died.
A man comes to David and his men in Ziklag in a state of mourning (clothes torn and dust on his head). Based on where he says he’s been, he’s walked roughly 80 miles to get to David (not an easy trip with torn clothes and a head full of dust). He prostrates himself before David – showing that he knows who the next king is – and proceeds to deliver the news of the battle.
David asks him where he’s come from and the man says he’s escaped from the camp of Israel. Right away this alerts David that the battle didn’t go well for Israel (you don’t ‘escape’ from a victorious camp and you don’t mourn a victory). David then asks how things went and the man tells him that not only did Israel get routed, but Saul and Jonathan (Saul’s son) are both dead (meaning that the king and the next-in-line for the throne are both dead).
Since Jonathan is the closest friend David has, this has to hit him like a thunderbolt. He maintains his composure enough to ask how the man knows Saul and Jonathan are dead. This is where things get very interesting. The man says he came upon Saul on Mt Gilboa (this is how we know he’s traveled roughly 80 miles to get to Ziklag) barely alive after trying to kill himself with his spear. As the chariots and horsemen of the Philistines bore down on the two of them (note that he makes it very clear that he came to Saul as the battle raged around them), Saul asked him to kill him. He told the man – who we find out is an Amalekite (a fellow countryman of the people who just burned down David’s city and who David just returned from battling) – to kill him because he didn’t want to fall into the hands of the Philistines. As a mercy to Saul – since he was in agony after falling on his own spear and since it was apparent that he couldn’t survive – the Amalekite struck Saul so he died.
After he killed Saul, he took the crown off his head and a bracelet off his arm and brought them to David. This is an enormously telling part of the story (both because of what he did and what he didn’t do – note that he didn’t exactly honor Saul in death or protect his body from the Philistines – he stripped the good stuff and hightailed it to David). The man very obviously wants David to know he’s now king and he also wants David to hear it first from him. He’s walked 80 miles (it’s apparently well-known where David is – I Sam 27:4 – so presumably it wasn’t hard for the man to find him) to give him the good news that Saul’s dead and also to present to him the kingly credentials that will allow him to claim the throne. That he’s walked this far and brought with him what he’s brought shows that he’s looking for some recognition and probably a nice reward or a post in the new administration.
The response of David and his men is likely not at all what the Amalekite expects. They tear their clothes, they mourn and weep, they fast until evening. Instead of celebrating the deaths of Saul and Jonathan and the impending kingship of David, they mourn the deaths and show very clearly that they’re devastated by the news of Israel’s defeat and Saul’s demise.
It’s important to understand the full meaning of David’s response. He’s essentially been an outlaw without a home for years because of Saul. Saul’s chased him and wanted to kill him and made his life miserable for a very long time. David had to send his parents out of the country for their safety; he’s continually been on the move; he now lives in the midst of his mortal enemies; all because of Saul. He also had to separate from his best friend – Jonathan – because his life was in danger anytime they were together. Just about everything bad that’s happened in David’s life to this point has been because of Saul.
And yet he responds to Saul’s death as if his father died. Now it’s true that he obviously mourns Jonathan also – he’s about say that Jonathan’s love was more wonderful than the love of women (a statement some have interpreted as implying something more than friendship, although this appears to be imputing today’s sensibilities on an ancient expression of deep friendship) – but he clearly mourns Saul’s death throughout his lament (vss 17-27). Instead of celebrating the death of his years-long nemesis and the fact that he can finally return to Israel and become king, he responds with genuine grief.
Would any of us respond this way? Why in the world does he grieve what allows him to return to a normal life? The key is in what he’s about to say to the Amalekite. Saul was the Lord’s anointed. David doesn’t mourn because Saul was a great guy. He mourns because Saul was anointed by God to be the king of God’s chosen people, and God’s people have been defeated and God’s king was killed. The son of God’s king was also killed. All the things that happened during the battle with the Philistines happened against God’s people and His name. And that causes David to mourn and weep. He genuinely grieves over what’s happened to God’s glory. It shows David’s heart. He’s so in tune with God and so concerned with God’s reputation and name that he’s devastated that anything happened to harm them.
It’s probably not reading too much into the story to assume the Amalekite is pretty nervous after watching David respond to his story. He likely assumed his news would be received with joy and that he was in for a big reward. Instead everyone weeps and mourns. It’s probably at this point that he starts to question the 80 mile walk and his future prospects (this assumes that the author recounts the story chronologically – it could be that the mourning takes place after the events of verses 13-16 – along those lines, David’s words in verse 16 are presumably spoken before the events of verse 15).
David goes back to the Amalekite and asks him where he’s from. He knows he’s an Amalekite because of the man’s story about his exchange with Saul, but he wants to know if he’s a foreigner or an immigrant. The man replies that he’s the son of an alien (son of a sojourner), an Amalekite. This tells David he’s a resident of Israel. He’s not an Israelite but he resides in Israel. He’s not a foreigner. This means he knows Saul and knows the gravity of killing the king. It also means he’s subject to the Mosaic Law.
When David hears this, he asks the man, “How is it you were not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” David doesn’t wait for an answer and instructs one of his men to kill him. Presumably right before the execution, David says to the Amalekite, “Your blood is on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’” It’s a fairly brutal scene, but it’s consistent with David’s view of Saul’s death. It wasn’t just the death of an important man; it was the death of the king God anointed. As such, the one who killed him has to face the ultimate consequences.
And so ends the life of the Amalekite and so ends his plan for glory. The saddest (or most pathetic) part of his demise, however? He was probably lying. He most likely didn’t kill Saul at all. If we understand the account of Saul’s death as it’s told in I Samuel 31, Saul did kill himself. He asked his armor bearer to kill him and the man was afraid to do it (the right response according to David), so Saul fell on his sword and died. His armor bearer then took his own life. The Amalekite likely came upon Saul’s dead body and took the crown and bracelet and then fabricated his own role to make himself sound better to David. By doing so, however, he sealed his own fate. It’s quite possibly the worst lie ever told. He made up a story to burnish his credentials and was then killed for something he didn’t actually do. He lied his way into an execution. [It could also be that he was telling the truth and that his story simply adds to the account in I Sam 31 – this would account for why he apparently didn’t come clean after David sentenced him to death (although maybe he didn’t have time) and why he was able to add the detail of the exchange between himself and Saul – something that seems somewhat odd to add if he was just making up a story – before Saul asked him to kill him. What argues against this, however, is that the same author writes both I and II Samuel and it seems odd that he would say Saul died by his own hand in I Sam 31 and then add the detail in II Sam 1 that it was actually someone else that finished the job.]
Let’s go back to David’s question to the doomed Amalekite because it gives us another view into David’s heart. He asks the man, “How is it you were not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” This goes along with our point about David’s grief over Saul’s death. He once again is deeply affected because of who Saul was and what he represented. In this case he can’t believe that someone would be so cavalier about rising up against God’s king.
David is so keenly aware of living in the presence of God that he’s incredulous over the actions of the Amalekite. How could anyone do what he did without any fear of what God would do as a result? How can someone live and act as if God doesn’t exist? David doesn’t live that way and is amazed that anyone does.
And therein is the lesson for the reader. David mourns Saul because of what his death means to the name and glory of the God of Israel. David executes the Amalekite because he dared to lift up his hand against God’s king. And ultimately he can’t believe that anyone could be so brazen as to act against God without any fear.
David is a man after God’s heart because he’s continually aware of God’s presence in his life. He never forgets that he lives in God’s sight (or at least he doesn’t forget until he runs into Bathsheba) and that his charge is to honor and glorify His name. He loves God – as he expresses repeatedly in the Psalms – but he also fears the ramifications of acting against Him. He’s the Old Testament personification of Peter’s words to believers as to how they should live in light of God’s redemption and presence in their lives – And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (I Pet 1:17). Peter says it’s both – we love God for our redemption and we fear God because we live in His sight and will stand before Him one day and give an account. David never forgets who and where God is and what that means to how he lives. He loves and fears God and can’t believe others – like the Amalekite – don’t.