At the end of 1 Samuel, Saul and Jonathan are killed in Israel’s battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:4–6). When David hears of their deaths, he sings a song of lament, called “the Song of the Bow” (2 Samuel 1:18, BSB), that includes the words, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19 and 27). The rest of the song, against the backdrop of David’s relationships with Saul and David, illustrates the significance of those words.
Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 10:24). Saul’s administration was still young when he disobeyed God and was rejected by God as king (1 Samuel 15:22–23). Still, he had been anointed as king, and even though David was chosen by God to replace Saul as king (1 Samuel 16:12), David did not want to raise his own hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6). It seemed as though David cared for Saul, even though Saul—growing increasingly threatened by David’s popularity—attempted to assassinate David. While David demonstrated respect (at least) for Saul, he loved Saul’s son Jonathan.
David and Jonathan were very close (1 Samuel 18:1), and Jonathan—even though, by lineage, he was heir to Saul’s throne—made a covenant with David. Jonathan loved David as himself (1 Samuel 18:3). Saul and Jonathan had many mighty exploits and victories in battle themselves, but David had quickly ascended to popularity and was given command over Saul’s men of war (1 Samuel 18:5). As David’s popularity grew, so did Saul’s suspicion of David (1 Samuel 18:9). Still, David would not threaten Saul’s rule because of David’s respect for Saul and for the God who had appointed Saul in the first place—perhaps also because of David’s love for Jonathan.
As David sang his memorial lament for Saul and Jonathan, he three times repeated that “the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, 27). He referred to the king and prince as Israel’s beauty (2 Samuel 1:19). He did not want the Philistines to rejoice in the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:20). In the song, he even cursed the mountains of Gilboa, where they had died (2 Samuel 1:21). The two were valiant and successful in battle (2 Samuel 1:22). David expressed that many loved them and thought them pleasant, and that they were “swifter than eagles” and “stronger than lions” (2 Samuel 1:23). He reminded the people how much Saul was a blessing to them (2 Samuel 1:24) and added—as a woeful refrain—“How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:25). After expressing how much he loved Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:25–26), David repeated the refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:27).
David introduces his song by exclaiming, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19), repeats the refrain after a specific acknowledgment of Saul, and then again after direct reference to Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen!” seems to be a sort of eulogy to two mighty men in Israel’s history, and David uses it poignantly. David’s respectfulness and love are an excellent reminder that, even when someone tries to harm us (as Saul did David), it is still right and beautiful to treat him with respect as someone created by God. It seemed that David always saw Saul through God’s eyes, rather than through his own hurt at being hated and even harmed. Even when his nemesis was killed, David took no joy in the occasion, but rather wept and sang sincerely, “How the mighty have fallen!”