2 Samuel 1 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

2 Samuel 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

II. Samuel.



Professor of Divinity, Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A.




THE period embraced in this book may be roughly described as the forty years of the reign of David. The book opens immediately upon the death of Saul, a few days before David ascended the throne, and it closes while David was still living, though “old and stricken in years.” It was an eventful period in Israel’s history. David came to the throne immediately after the crushing defeat of Saul by the Philistines, and when almost the whole land was held in their grasp; and when the tribes of Israel were at variance with one another, and for seven and a half years refused to unite in the recognition of a common monarch. But at David’s death the enemies of Israel had been subdued on every side, and he transmitted to Solomon an united empire, extending from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates, and from the Red Sea to Lebanon. The maritime nations of the Phoenicians alone appear not to have been conquered, but they were united to the Israelites in the closest bonds of friendship, and assisted both David and his successor in their works. The religious development of the people received a great impulse from the piety of the monarch and the influence of his sacred poetry. The outward observances of religion shone forth indeed with more splendour in the early part of the succeeding reign of Solomon; but at no period was there a more earnest effort to conduct the affairs of the nation on religious principles, or a truer devotion on the part of their ruler. Moreover, the services of the sanctuary were systematically arranged, and sacred song made prominent in them; the priesthood was had in honour; and abundant material and wealth were accumulated for the future building of the Temple.

David himself, the hero of the book, was a man to attract attention in any age of the world. Raised from the sheepfold of Bethlehem to a throne, tried by every vicissitude of great prosperity and great adversity, a man of noble presence and warlike prowess, of such physical power as to be able to wield the sword of Goliath, of such skill upon the harp as to be chosen to allay the paroxysms of Saul’s insanity, of high literary culture and poetic inspiration, witnessed by the psalms of his composition, of such fervent piety as to be called of God “a man after my own heart,” yet he was withal eminently “a man of affairs,” a skilful general, a wise statesman, and possessed of that personal magnetism by which all who came under his influence were deeply and permanently attached to him. He was also a man of strong natural passions, which, although generally kept under control, yet led him at times to the commission of grievous sins from which both he and his people suffered severely. There was also a strain of weakness in his character. His domestic affections were indulged to the neglect of positive duties, and caused grave troubles and crimes in his household. The latter part of his reign was disturbed by formidable rebellions. He failed to deal with some of his powerful subjects as he knew that justice required. The period treated in this book is altogether a chequered one, presenting a history of earnest piety, of outrageous sin, and of deep repentance; of great prosperity and unusual blessings on the one hand, and of severe afflictions and punishments on the other. Nevertheless, it was, on the whole, a period of marked advance in both religious development and earthly prosperity, and it cannot fail to reward the most careful study.

The great prophet Samuel had now passed to his rest, but David’s early intercourse with him must have remained vividly in his memory, and his life and government was doubtless largely influenced by the prophet’s counsels. The “schools of the prophets,” founded by him, were still flourishing, and it may have been in them that Gad and Nathan and Iddo were trained.

This is not the place to speak of the date and authorship of the book, since it is simply a continuation of the First Book of Samuel. Only it is not to be forgotten that the original documents from which it was compiled must have been somewhat later—in accordance with the events to which they relate. The literature in relation to the two books is essentially the same.


IT has been necessary from time to time to speak of errors of the scribes in copying the text, and of probable emendations suggested by the reading of the parallel passages in Chronicles. Such errors must necessarily arise in the often repeated copying of manuscripts during a succession of many centuries, unless it were prevented by a special and perpetual miracle. But we have not only no Scriptural or other reasonable ground for expecting such a miracle; we have positive proof against such a supposition. In the parallel case of the New Testament, where we have a large number of MSS., some of them very ancient, as well as versions made within a century of the original documents, and copious quotations in ancient writers, it is found that no single MS. contains a perfectly accurate text, and that the actual language of the original can only be determined in cases of doubt by a careful collation and weighing of all the evidence bearing upon the point. There is no ground to suppose that the text of the Old Testament has fared differently; but there do not exist the same means of testing and authenticating its readings. There are no MSS. of the Old Testament as ancient as several which have been preserved of the New; there are no translations at all as near the date of the original writings, and there are, of course, no quotations, outside of the sacred books themselves, for a long period after their publication. Yet a comparison of parallel accounts, such as have been occasionally noted above, and such as Ezra 2 with Nehemiah 7, shows conclusively that errors have been introduced into the text, especially in regard to numbers. Most of these appear to have been very ancient, before the oldest existing versions were made, and before the necessity was felt for such scrupulous care on the part of the scribes as was exercised in later times. For the correction of such errors we are necessarily compelled to rely mainly upon conjecture; but while conjecture is usually an uncertain guide, in the case of parallel accounts it often becomes possible to determine, by comparison, the original reading with a high degree of probability; and then, from the analogy of these corrections to determine slight changes in other passages also, where the text has apparently undergone alteration.

It is to be remembered, however, that all these errors and corrections are only in minutiæ, in proper names, in the bare statement of numbers, and such like matters. When all have been made that any sober criticism can suggest, the substance of the narrative remains un-affected, and the result of the most searching investigation is to place on an ever firmer basis the substantial accuracy of the copies of the Scriptures which have come down to us.

Now it came to pass after the death of Saul, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and David had abode two days in Ziklag;
(1) After the death of Saul.—These words are immediately connected with 1 Samuel 31, and the following words, “when David was returned,” refer to 1 Samuel 30. The two books really form one continuous narrative.

Two days in Ziklag.—The site of Ziklag has not been exactly identified, but it is mentioned in Joshua 19:5 as one of the cities in the extreme south, at first assigned to Judah, but afterwards given to Simeon. It is also spoken of in connection with Beersheba and other places of the south as re-occupied by the Jews on their return from Babylon (Nehemiah 11:28). Its most probable locality is some ten or twelve miles south of beersheba, and nearly equidistant from the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. It was thus quite four days’ journey from Mount Gilboa. and the messenger who brought the news of the battle must have left the field before David’s return to Ziklag.

It came even to pass on the third day, that, behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul with his clothes rent, and earth upon his head: and so it was, when he came to David, that he fell to the earth, and did obeisance.
(2) On the third day—viz., after David’s return, not the third day after Saul’s death.

Did obeisance.—The following verses show that this was not merely an act of Oriental respect, but was intended as a recognition of David’s rank as having now become king. The messenger, although an Amalekite (2 Samuel 1:8; 2 Samuel 1:13), had earth upon his head and his clothes rent as marks of sorrow for the defeat of David’s people, and the death of their king.

And David said unto him, From whence comest thou? And he said unto him, Out of the camp of Israel am I escaped.
(3) Out of the camp of Israel.—It has been questioned whether this Amalekite had actually been in the army of Israel, and the expression in 2 Samuel 1:6, “As I happened by chance upon Mount Gilboa,” has been cited to show that his presence there was merely accidental, but no one who is not concerned in the matter is likely to stray into the midst of a battle, and the expression “by chance” is better referred to his coming upon Saul when he was wounded. He certainly here claims to have been a part of the “camp of Israel.” He tells David the general facts of the defeat, and the death of Saul and Jonathan, as they really occurred.

And David said unto him, How went the matter? I pray thee, tell me. And he answered, That the people are fled from the battle, and many of the people also are fallen and dead; and Saul and Jonathan his son are dead also.
And David said unto the young man that told him, How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son be dead?
And the young man that told him said, As I happened by chance upon mount Gilboa, behold, Saul leaned upon his spear; and, lo, the chariots and horsemen followed hard after him.
(6) Upon mount Gilboa.—The battle appears to have been joined in the plain of Jezreel, but when the Israelites were routed they naturally fled up the mountain range of Gilboa, though apparently much scattered. It was in this straggling flight that the Amalekite happened upon that part of the mountain where Saul was. The true account of the death of Saul is given in 1 Samuel 31:3-6. (See Note on 2 Samuel 1:10.) It is uncertain whether the man saw Saul at all before his death, and it is extremely unlikely that he found him without warriors or armour-bearer, wounded and alone.

And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called unto me. And I answered, Here am I.
And he said unto me, Who art thou? And I answered him, I am an Amalekite.
(8) An Amalekite.—The Amalekites were hereditary foes of Israel, having attacked them on their first coming out of Egypt (Exodus 17:8-13), and at different times afterwards in the wilderness (Numbers 14:45; Deuteronomy 25:18). During the period of the judges they had also repeatedly joined the foes of Israel (Judges 3:13; Judges 6:3), but some years before this they had been terribly defeated by Saul (1 Samuel 15:4-9). and it is possible that the present messenger may either have attached himself to the army of the conqueror, or have been compelled, according to ancient custom, to serve in its ranks. One of their bands had also just received a severe blow at the hands of David, but of this last attack the Amalekite could not have known.

He said unto me again, Stand, I pray thee, upon me, and slay me: for anguish is come upon me, because my life is yet whole in me.
(9) Anguish is come upon me.—The word for “anguish” occurs only here, and probably does not have either of the meanings given to it in the text and margin of our version. The Rabbis explain it of cramp, others of giddiness, and the ancient versions differ as to its sense. It indicates probably some effect of his wound which incapacitated him for further combat.

So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.
(10) Slew him.—This story is inconsistent with that given in 1 Samuel 31:4-5, and was evidently invented by the Amalekite to gain favour with David. At the same time, he is careful not to carry the story too far, and asserts that Saul was only put to death at his own request, and after being mortally wounded. However, he must have been one of the first to find the body of Saul after his death, since he brought his crown and bracelet to David—a primâ facie evidence of the truth of his whole story. The offering of these emblems of royalty shows that the Amalekite recognised David as the future king, a recognition which most of the tribes of Israel were unwilling to make for a long time.

Then David took hold on his clothes, and rent them; and likewise all the men that were with him:
And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the LORD, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword.
(12) They mourned.—On hearing the tidings of the Amalekite, David and all his people showed the usual Oriental signs of sorrow by rending their clothes, weeping, and fasting. Although David thus heard of the death of his persistent and mortal enemy, and of his own consequent accession to the throne, yet there is not the slightest reason to doubt the reality and earnestness of his mourning. The whole narrative shows that David not only, as a patriotic Israelite, lamented the death of the king, but also felt a personal attachment to Saul, notwithstanding his long and unreasonable hostility. But Saul did not die alone; Jonathan, David’s most cherished friend, fell with him. At the same time, the whole nation over which David was hereafter to reign received a crushing defeat from their foes, and large numbers of his countrymen were slain. It has been well remarked that the only deep mourning for Saul, with the exception of the men of Jabesh-gilead, came from the man whom he had hated and persecuted as long as he lived.

The people of the Lord.—Besides his personal grief, David had both a religious and a patriotic ground for sorrow. The men who had fallen were parts of that Church of God which he so earnestly loved and served, and were also members of the commonwealth of Israel, on whose behalf he ever laboured with patriotic devotion. The LXX., overlooking this distinction, has very unnecessarily changed “people of the Lord” into “people of Judah.”

And David said unto the young man that told him, Whence art thou? And he answered, I am the son of a stranger, an Amalekite.
And David said unto him, How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the LORD'S anointed?
(14) How wast thou not afraid?—David now turns to the Amalekite. It does not matter whether he fully believed his story or not, the man must be judged by his own account of himself. (See 2 Samuel 1:16.) Regicide was not in David’s eyes merely a political crime; he had showed on more than one occasion of great temptation (1 Samuel 24:6; 1 Samuel 26:9; 1 Samuel 26:11; 1 Samuel 26:16) that he considered taking the life of “the Lord’s anointed” as a religious offence of the greatest magnitude. It was an especially grievous thing for a foreigner and an Amalekite thus to smite him whom God had appointed as the monarch of Israel.

And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him. And he smote him that he died.
(15) Fall upon him.—All question of David’s authority to pronounce a capital sentence is here quite out of place. The Amalekite had just recognised him as king, and therefore acknowledged his authority. But, besides this, David and his band of 600 outlaws were accustomed to live by the sword, and to defend themselves against Philistines, Amalekites, and other foes as best they could; and here stood before them one, by his own confession, guilty of high treason.

And David said unto him, Thy blood be upon thy head; for thy mouth hath testified against thee, saying, I have slain the LORD'S anointed.
And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son:
(17) Lamented with this lamentation.—This is the technical expression for a funeral dirge or elegy, such as David also composed on the death of Abner (2 Samuel 3:33-34), and Jeremiah on the death of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25). It is the only instance preserved to us (except the few lines on the death of Abner) of David’s secular poetry. “It is one of the finest odes of the Old Testament, full of lofty sentiment, and springing from deep and sanctified emotion, in which, without the slightest allusion to his own relation to the fallen king, David celebrates without envy the bravery and virtues of Saul and his son Jonathan, and bitterly laments their loss.” (Keil.)

(Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.)
(18) The use of the bow.—The words in italics, the use of, are not in the original, and should be omitted. David “bade them teach the children of Judah the bow”: i.e., the following dirge called “the bow,” not merely from the allusion to Jonathan’s bow in 2 Samuel 1:22, but because it is a martial ode, and the bow was one of the chief weapons of the time with which the Benjamites were particularly skilful (1 Chronicles 12:2; 2 Chronicles 14:8; 2 Chronicles 17:17). The word is omitted in the Vatican LXX. He taught this song to “the children of Judah” rather than to all Israel, because for the following seven and a half years, while the memory of Saul was fresh, he reigned only over Judah and Benjamin.

In the book of Jasher.—This book is also referred to in Joshua 10:13, and nothing more is really known about it, although it has been the subject of endless discussion and speculation. It is supposed to have been a collection of songs relating to memorable events and men in the early history of Israel, and it appears that this elegy was included among them.

The song is in two parts, the first relating to both Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-24), the second to Jonathan, alone (2 Samuel 1:25-26), each having at the beginning the lament, “How are the mighty fallen !” and the whole closing with the same refrain (2 Samuel 1:27).

The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
(19) The beauty of Israel, in the sense of the glory or ornament of Israel, referring to Saul and Jonathan. The rendering of the Syriac and some commentators, “the gazelle,” as a poetic name for Jonathan, is uncalled for, both because the words are spoken of Saul and Jonathan together, and because there is no evidence elsewhere that Jonathan was so called, nor is there any allusion to him under this figure in the song.

Upon thy high places.—Comp. 2 Samuel 1:21; 2 Samuel 1:25. This line may be considered as the superscription of the whole song.

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
(20) In Gath . . . in the streets of Askelon.—Two chief cities of the Philistines, poetically put for the whole. In the former David had himself resided (1 Samuel 21:10; 1 Samuel 27:3-4), and in the latter was a famous temple of Venus, which was doubtless “the house of Ashtaroth” (1 Samuel 31:10), where the Philistines put the armour of Saul. “Tell it not in Gath” appears to have become a proverb. (See Micah 1:10.)

Lest the daughters of the Philistines.—It was customary for women to celebrate national deliverances and victories (Exodus 15:21; 1 Samuel 18:6). The word uncircumcised might be applied to the heathen generally, but it so happens that, with the exception of Genesis 34:14, it is used in the historical books only of the Philistines (Judges 14:3; Judges 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; 1 Samuel 17:26; 1 Samuel 17:36; 1 Samuel 31:4; 1 Chronicles 10:4).

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.
(21) Nor fields of offerings.—This somewhat obscure expression seems to mean, “Let there not be upon you those fruitful fields from which may be gathered the offerings of first-fruits.” Of course, this malediction upon the mountains of Gilboa is to be understood as it was meant, only in a poetical sense.

Vilely cast away.—Another sense of this word is defiled. The ancient versions, as well as modern commentators, adopt some one, and some the other meaning, either of which is appropriate.

As though he had not been anointed.—This translation follows the Vulg., and makes a good sense = as though Saul had not been a king; but it is more than doubtful if the original can bear this construction. There is no pronoun in the Hebrew, and the word “anointed” refers to the shield, “the shield of Saul not anointed with oil.” It was customary to oil metal shields, as well as those of wood and leather, for their preservation, and the idea here is that Saul’s shield was thrown away uncared for.

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.
Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
(23) Lovely and pleasant.—This applies peculiarly to Jonathan, but also in a good degree to Saul in his earlier years and his better moments, which David chose at this moment to recall. It also applies truthfully to them both in their relations to each other.

Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
(24) Clothed you in scarlet.—This refers to Saul’s division among the people of the spoil of his conquered foes, and to the prosperity resulting from his many successful campaigns. Notwithstanding that his light at last went out under the cloud of a crushing defeat, he had been on the whole a successful warrior. The Philistines, the Ammonites, the Amalekites, and others, had felt the power of his arm, and the relations of Israel to the surrounding nations had been wonderfully changed for the better during his reign.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
(26) Passing the love of women.—By this strong expression, comparing Jonathan’s love for David to that of the faithful wife for her husband, David shows his appreciation of that wonderful affection which had existed between Jonathan and himself under the most untoward circumstances. It was such an affection as could only exist between noble natures and those united in the fear of God. In these last verses of the elegy which relate to Jonathan alone, David has given expression to his own personal sorrow.

How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
Courtesy of Open Bible