After David hears of Saul’s death, and has the Amalekite lad killed, he has time to react to the news.
He apparently starts הקינה הזאת with ויאמר ללמד בני יהודה, but it’s hard to see how that is part of the poem that follows. It’s more likely that this is a two-pasuk introduction to the chapters that follow, the elegy and the plan to teach the people of Judah to fight. He looks back at the past and plans for the future.
Bow to the Inevitable
We could look at ללמד קשת as a generic term for teaching them to use weapons, but many of the commentators try to understand why specifically a bow:
In fact, there were those known to be בקי בזה: שבט בנימין was famous for its marksmanship, but presumably as the tribe of Saul they were disproportionately killed in the war. David felt it was Judah’s responsibility to fill the gap.
Abarbanel suggests a tactical reason for emphasizing the bow, as a consequence of losing the war with the פלישתים:
The משבצות זהב suggests a metaphoric interpretation of קשת based on the העמק דבר on דברים לג:יב (citing a text not present in my edition):
קשת is a metaphor for prayer. David is determined to teach them what he already knows: (שמואל א יז:מה) אתה בא אלי בחרב ובחנית ובכידון; ואנכי בא אליך בשם ה׳ צ־באות.
When the text says הנה כתובה על ספר הישר, what is it talking about? What is this “Book of the Straight”? (You might think it’s a book about poker; volume 2 is “The Book of the Flush”.) It’s mentioned one other time in תנ״ך:
It may be one of the other sources like ספר מלחמות ה׳ or דברי הימים למלכי יהודה that are scattered throughout תנ״ך:
But it’s hard to imagine what’s so important about training Judah in marksmanship that warrants mentioning “there’s more detail in this other book”. חז״ל claimed that it was not a contemporary source, but a much earlier one:
While all three possibilities are midrashic, I think the idea that ספר הישר is ספר בראשית is close to peshat. It’s entirely possible that the ancient name for that book was ספר הישר (there’s no reason that a book has to be named for its first word). As Rashi points out in the beginning of בראשית, there are almost no mitzvot in it. It is included in the Torah to teach us מידות, like חסד and אמת:
Back to our story, note that the three options are all reading the reference in ספר הישר to prophecies of Judah’s mission: יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך; ידיו רב לו and יהודה יעלה. Judah is destined to be the leader of the tribes, but for the past 300 plus years, since the days of עתניאל, they’ve done nothing. They have been passive subjects of the Philistines for more than a hundred years. David is saying with יאמר ללמד בני יהודה קשת, ”This ends here!“
I would suggest an additional understanding based on ספר בראשית, ספר הישר. David has been dealing with the Philistines so far in only one way: bribery.
But we learn from Jacob that we need a three-pronged approach to foreign powers:
And we see this approach other places in תנ״ך, notably in מגילת אסתר. We know about the prayer and three days of fasting, and we certainly know about the war. But the בעל הטורים sees a hint to the third approach as well:
רוח literally means space, respite. Bribery doesn’t end problems; it delays the consequences of the problem, but only as long as the money keeps coming in.
Sometimes that’s enough. But usually the other two approaches are needed. And David is going to use them, both the literal meaning of קשת, an instrument of war, and the metaphoric meaning, of prayer and petition.
Now let’s look at the elegy itself:
David starts addressing Israel directly. הצבי ישראל is the vocative: O beautiful Israel, how are the dead left on your highest places?
But there’s a subtlety here: a במה also is a מזבח. Saul sacrificed himself for the sake of Israel:
איך נפלו גבורים is a sort of refrain that separates the two parts of the קינה. The first is about Saul and the national loss; the second is about Jonathan and David’s personal loss.
Feelings of Rejection
The contrast in the next line is between the joy of the Philistines (תשמחנה בנות פלשתים) and the mourning of the Israelites in כד: בנות ישראל אל שאול בכינה.
Then the land of Israel itself should mourn. Read שדי תרומת as part of the address to הרי בגלבע: may their fields [not (carry over the אל) not bring forth] their offerings.
געל means “rejected” and is a reference to the תוכחה:
But here Saul is rejected. ה׳ should have saved His king:
The Ralbag and Abarbanel interpret this as part of the praise of Saul that follows:
Fly Like an Eagle
The praise of Saul and Jonathan are straightforward, but I want to talk about מנשרים קלו: they were swifter than eagles:
Most commentators explain מלבשכם שני as a reference to the spoils of war. But that is inconsistent with Saul’s history; he never fought wars of conquest. The only recorded time his army took spoils, it was the ill-fated battle against Amalek. Ralbag has an alternate explanation that I prefer:
Part II: This Time It’s Personal
In the second part of his elegy, David talks of how he loved Jonathan. We’ve previously discussed what that love means:
א ויהי ככלתו לדבר אל שאול ונפש יהונתן נקשרה בנפש דוד; ויאהבו (ויאהבהו) יהונתן כנפשו׃
ב ויקחהו שאול ביום ההוא; ולא נתנו לשוב בית אביו׃
ג ויכרת יהונתן ודוד ברית באהבתו אתו כנפשו׃
ד ויתפשט יהונתן את המעיל אשר עליו ויתנהו לדוד; ומדיו ועד חרבו ועד קשתו ועד חגרו׃
שמואל א פרק יח
The Septuagint translates אהבתך as ἀγάπησίς, agape. The Thayer Lexicon defines agape as “to take pleasure in the thing, prize it above all other things, be unwilling to abandon it or do without it.” It’s not an erotic, physical love.
One thing worth noting is that there’s no happy ending. תהילים, even the sad ones, always end on a note of hope:
But this does not. This ends with the plaintive question, איך נפלו גבורים. There is a time for mourning, and consolation is only empty words in the immediate aftermath of tragedy:
But David will take this tragedy and the determination that it instills in him, and go on to become the דוד המלך that we know.