“Song of the Bow”: A Biblical Meditation for Memorial Day


Each Memorial Day our nation takes time to formally recognize the ultimate sacrifice of our servicemen and servicewomen who died in battle. In 1868, a few years after the Civil War, General John A. Logan called for a nationwide day to remember fallen soldiers of that conflict. He selected May 30 as the day to decorate the graves of those soldiers who died in defense of their nation. No particular battle had taken place on that day during the war. The observance became know as Decoration Day. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield (later to become President), spoke at Arlington National Cemetery. Five thousand attendees decorated the graves of twenty thousand Union and Confederate soldiers interred at Arlington. Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971 established the final Monday in May as the date for official observance.

Our fallen heroes represent a long history of patriots in many lands—and even some eulogized in the pages of Scripture. “The Lament of the Bow” in 2 Samuel 1:17–27 stands as the most well known of such eulogies. On that ancient Memorial Day, David sang the elegy he himself had written. He respectfully and passionately commemorated the battle deaths of his best friend (Jonathan) and his king (Saul). Let’s consider the text and its implications for our Memorial Day.

Preserving the Memory of Fallen Warriors

17 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, 18 and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. (2 Samuel 1:17–18, ESV)

David intended for his song to be song for years to come, so that the memory of Jonathan and Saul’s deaths would not be forgotten. The people of the tribe of Judah would learn the song in order to sing it themselves. Interestingly, Saul and Jonathan did not belong to the tribe of Judah—they were Benjamites. But, the tribe of the kings of Israel through the line of David would carry on the tradition and its memory. In addition to teaching the people the song, it was included in the Book of Jashar (“The Scroll of the Upright”). That same written record contained the histories of other great battles, like the battle Joshua fought against the Amorite kings at Gibeon where the sun stood still in the sky (Joshua 10:1–14). Likewise, Memorial Day should be a time to sing and write and read tributes to our fallen warriors’ lives and exploits.

Remembering the Cost

19   “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20   Tell it not in Gath,
publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.”
(2 Samuel 1:19–20)

David employs a subtle word play with “glory.” The same word can also mean “gazelle” an animal renowned for its grace, beauty, and speed (cf. 2 Samuel 2:18). The chronicler describes experienced and highly skilled military personnel as being “swift as gazelles upon the mountains” (1 Chronicles 12:8). Solomon’s bride describes him as “leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag” (Song of Solomon 2:8–9). Indeed, the gazelle has become a symbol for Israel itself, which is known as “The Land of the Gazelle.” The mountain gazelle lived in the region of Mt. Gilboa and northward throughout the hills of Galilee. As highly trained warriors, Saul and Jonathan were the glory of Israel.

“How the mighty have fallen!” The refrain stands near the beginning, middle, and end of David’s song (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, 27). “How” is related to the word “Alas!” that opens the Book of Lamentations and starts its second and fourth chapters as well. The loss is unspeakable. The glory of Israel and her mighty warriors have fallen on the field of battle! Our war dead represent an incalculable loss of national and personal potential—we dare not neglect their sacrifice.

At the same time, the enemies we battle celebrate our fallen patriots with joy, exulting in our nation’s losses. The Philistines celebrated the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, gloated over their corpses, and displayed their weapons (1 Samuel 31:8–10). Therefore, David’s song instructs Israel not to announce their casualties in the population centers of their enemies, the Philistines. The Philistines had desecrated the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, but valiant men risked death to recover their remains and bury them with honor (1 Samuel 31:11–13). Memorial Day demonstrates the same respect by decorating the graves of our warriors in their homeland—we seek to bring each one home for an honorable burial.

Remembering the Place of Sacrifice

“You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor fields of offerings!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.” (2 Samuel 1:21)

Mt. Gilboa consists of a ridge approximately eight miles in length and three to five miles wide. Standing at Jezreel, you can see it as it stretches southeast. The plain of Esdraelon is at its northwest and Beth-shean, where Saul and Jonathan’s bodies were hung on the city wall, is on the east end. The rich soil of Gilboa’s western slopes (seen in the photo at the right) produces barley, wheat, figs, and olives. David calls for its fruitfulness to turn to barrenness, because there Saul died on the field of battle. His death polluted that land (cp. Psalm 106:38) and his shield either lay on the mountain or sat on display in a pagan temple. No one polished it or prepared it for combat. On this Memorial Day we see no beauty and gain no pleasure from the battlefield on which a loved one perished and we rightly cherish the medals, ribbons, and emblems that adorned their uniforms.

Remembering the Deeds of Valor

22    “From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan turned not back,
and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
23    “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.” (2 Samuel 1:22–23)

At the heart of David’s song of lament as a memorial to Saul and Jonathan, their names occur together in both verses in chiastic order (Jonathan—Saul—Saul—Jonathan) to highlight Saul as king of the nation. Using the figure of a commemorative coin, we might picture their faces and names engraved on one side to commemorate their courage, steadfastness, and skill as comrades at arms—inseparable in life and in death. David adds eagles and lions to the previous imagery of the gazelle to describe the two warriors. Memorial Day offers an opportunity to commemorate the courage and skill of our fallen soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors.

The other side of this figurative coin, however, gives glory to God Himself. Human swiftness and strength cannot preserve the lives of our warriors. The two words (“swift” and “strong”) occur again together in Amos 2:14 (a different Hebrew term used here for “strong”),

Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong shall not retain his strength,
nor shall the mighty save his life; . . .

Ecclesiastes 9:11,

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
[Note: Our deeds rest in God’s hand, not ours—Ecclesiastes 9:1.]

And, Jeremiah 46:6,

“The swift cannot flee away,
nor the warrior [mighty man] escape;
in the north by the river Euphrates
they have stumbled and fallen.”

In other words, God remains sovereignly over the time, place, and means of each person’s final end (see Psalm 139:16)—even in the midst of the chaos and turmoil of the battlefield. No amount of courage, skill, knowledge, or determination can deliver anyone from their appointed time. Above all else, Memorial Day ought to remind us that we all serve a sovereign Lord who alone determines the outcome of battle, as well as the beginning and ending of the warrior’s life and service.

Grieving Fallen Countrymen

24    “You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25a  “How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!” (2 Samuel 1:24–25a)

David and the men who accompanied him all mourned the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:11–12). He summons all Israel (even the wealthy, secure, and privileged) to grieve over the loss of these two heroes. The apostle Paul instructed believers to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (1 Corinthians 12:15). Indeed, there is a time to weep and mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4) and such actions produce an awareness of our mortality, the shortness of life, humility, and dependence upon God’s grace:

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:6–10)

Therefore, Memorial Day should be a time for national and personal repentance, submission to God, and humility.

Remembering Fallen Friends and Loved Ones

25b  “Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
26    “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
27  “How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!” (2 Samuel 1:25b–27)

David concludes his emotional tribute by evoking the memory of his treasured companionship with Jonathan. David admired Jonathan’s bravery, leadership in battle, and skills as a warrior (see one account of Jonathan’s exploits in 1 Samuel 14:1–23). More than that, he treasured his friendship and the bond of covenant they shared (see 1 Samuel 20). David has suffered great personal loss and this song preserves the memory of his loss—as well as the nation’s loss. Memorial Day marks the national preservation of such memories regarding our losses in the lives of our warriors.

In Memoriam

Many who read these words will be able to empathize with David. You may have lost a family member, a close friend, or a good acquaintance to the ravages of war. On March 1, 1967, in either Binh Duong Province or its neighboring province, Tay Ninh, in South Vietnam an armor-piercing round penetrated the vehicle in which one of my closest friends was riding. Jerry Duane Byers had enlisted a mere six months earlier. As a Christian committed to pacifism, Jerry requested and received service as a US Army medic—his medals give testimony to his valor under fire. We attended high school together at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming. When we could, we went hiking and hunting together, or just riding in the countryside in my ’49 Willy’s Jeep—often with another friend, Dick Lotspeich, who survived Vietnam. We were the “three amigos.” You are missed, my dear friend. “Alas, the mighty have fallen!” Memorial Day 2017 marks fifty years of personal remembrance and personal loss—as well as a grateful nation’s loss.