David seized his garments and rent them, and all the men who were with him did likewise. They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the soldiers of the LORD of the clans of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
There are three important figures in the Old Testament; the Christian is well advised to ponder the stories of Abraham, Moses and David.
David may be the most familiar of the three, his virtues and his character defects are right out there where everyone can see them. As a warrior king who has sent men on suicide missions, savagely killed enemy soldiers and toppled rival kings, both Jewish and gentile, he doesn't much care if you like him or not. His mission is to build and maintain a kingdom and to hand it off to his successor; and to honor the Lord who called him from the sheepfolds and made him king.
David has a soldier's sense of reverence. He is a warrior, not a killer. An important distinction.
Harry S. Stout, in his history of the Civil War, Upon the Altar of the Nation, recalls the conflict between West Point trained commanders of the Northern and Southern armies, and the public who watched their battles from afar. West Point taught traditional ethical codes of combat: spare the life of non-combatants, measured destruction of enemy homes, towns and cities, respectful treatment of prisoners of war, and so forth.
The public knew little of these principles. Christian preachers and newspaper editors -- most newspapers were religious publications -- wanted a quick and decisive end of the war by any means: "Kill them all! Destroy their homes! Poison their fields! Revenge!"
Today's first reading displays David's deep respect for his rival Saul. He may well be the model for West Point graduates.
At that point in history, calling either Saul or David a king might be exaggeration. They were chieftains of guerrilla bands. Both fought for and defended the Hebrew hill people against the lowland Philistines in their walled cities and prosperous farms. The ancient feud was savage and vindictive, offering little hope for an amicable settlement.
But a rivalry had developed between the older Saul and his protege, David. When the judge Samuel withdrew his support, Saul hated the good-looking, charismatic lad. Moody and insecure, he tried to kill David on one occasion, and had wasted precious resources chasing him through the mountains. David had ample reason to rejoice when Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines.
But David was a pious man. He believed in the ancient religious traditions and insisted that his fighters observe them also. Unlike Saul he would not consult with necromancers, he would not amass forbidden loot for his personal treasure, and he would not harm "the Lord's Anointed," who was Saul.
When he learned that Saul and his son Jonathan were slain, David wept deeply. Saul had been like a father to him; Jonathan, a "battle buddy" and close friend. Grieving, he immediately dismissed any resentments he might have against either man, much to the surprise of his comrades. They remembered that Jonathan should be the heir of Saul and inherit his kingdom. Wouldn't David be glad of Jonathan's death as he aspired to kingship? Shouldn't he be glad of Saul's death, the nuisance who had repeatedly tried to kill him?
No, David wept for these Hebrew warriors and servants of the Most High God. He went further; he executed the man who had dispatched Saul as he lay dying of a fatal wound. "How is it," he demanded, "that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to desecrate the LORD’s anointed?"
The warrior David was a flawed human being. The Hebrew scriptures describe him as such. He lived amid a nation of flawed, sinful people who were loved by God. If there are heroes in the Bible they are not sinless, ideal models of faithful behavior. We can do without those fantastic paragons of virtue that were created by medieval hagiographers and celebrated in modern comic books. We should study the lives of real people, sinful like you and me, who show us what it means to be loved by God.