WHEN DAVID HEARS OF the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1), his grief is not merely formal. He could not help but know that the way to the throne was now open to him. Nevertheless, his sorrow is so genuine that he composes a lengthy lament (2 Sam. 1:19–27), sets it to music, and teaches it to the men of his tribe (2 Sam. 1:18) so that it will be sung for a long time as one of the folk ballads of the land.
Many elements of this lament deserve long reflection. Today I shall reflect on just one verse: “Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice” (2 Sam. 1:20). Formally, the text is plain enough. Gath and Ashkelon were the two leading Philistine cities. David is saying, in effect, not to let the Philistines know of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, lest they be glad and rejoice.
Of course, the Philistines could not help but find out, and David, of all people, knew that. But his purpose in penning these words is not literally to keep the Philistines in the dark a little while longer. How could that be? They had already hoisted the body of Saul onto the wall of Beth Shan (1 Sam. 31:10) and sent messengers with the news throughout Philistia (1 Sam. 31:9). But if these lines from David’s pen do not function as literal advice, what is their function?
In part, it is simply a lament. It is a powerful way of saying that the opponents of the Israelites would be delighted with the news, and therefore their pleasure is a measure of the tragedy. But I suspect there is another overtone. When one of our leaders falls, conduct yourself in such a way as not to give strength to the opposition.
That is a lesson that must be learned again and again by the church. When a minister of the Gospel is caught embezzling funds or having an affair, then certainly the biblical principle for discipline must be brought to bear immediately. If the law has been broken, the civil authorities must be contacted. If families have been damaged, there may be a great deal of pastoral work to be done. But understand well that many unbelievers will be gleefully rubbing their hands and saying, “See? What can you expect? All this religious stuff is so hypocritical and phony.” Thus Christ is despised and the credibility of Christian witnesses diminished. Christians must restrain their tongues, watch what they say, and be especially careful about saying anything unnecessary to unbelievers. This is a time for mourning, not gossip. “Tell it not in Gath. . . .”