“Gravity’s Rainbow” (1 Samuel 31)

When Thomas Pynchon titled his classic novel Gravity’s Rainbow, he did so as something of a dark joke.  The novel takes place in the era of nuclear fear.  The “rainbow” refers to the parabolic arc—the arch across the sky formed by intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The worst thing of all, according to the novel, is that when the missiles travel faster than the speed of sound no one can ever hear it coming.  One day, there’s a flash, and it’s all over.

What goes up must come down, and usually with no real precision or sense of target specificity.  The transition from the books of 1-2 Samuel comes with the decline of Saul, a man now caught in the “rainbow” of the gravity of his own failure:

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.3 The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. 4 Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5 And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. 6 Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. 7 And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them. (1 Samuel 31:1-7)

Saul takes his own life, while the people flee from battle.  He takes the easy way out, though the aftermath of this decision would be felt throughout the land.

8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. 10 They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. 11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31:8-13)

Thus ends 1 Samuel, almost as a tag line from a newspaper headline.  The best case scenario was a few valiant men who came to claim his body before it could be fully desecrated.

2 Samuel picks up this same storyline:

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from striking down the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 2 And on the third day, behold, a man came from Saul’s camp, with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. And when he came to David, he fell to the ground and paid homage. 3 David said to him, “Where do you come from?” And he said to him, “I have escaped from the camp of Israel.” 4 And David said to him, “How did it go? Tell me.” And he answered, “The people fled from the battle, and also many of the people have fallen and are dead, and Saul and his son Jonathan are also dead.”5 Then David said to the young man who told him, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?” 6 And the young man who told him said, “By chance I happened to be on Mount Gilboa, and there was Saul leaning on his spear, and behold, the chariots and the horsemen were close upon him. 7 And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. And I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 8 And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’ 9 And he said to me, ‘Stand beside me and kill me, for anguish has seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’ 10 So I stood beside him and killed him, because I was sure that he could not live after he had fallen. And I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.” (2 Samuel 1:1-10)

The man is lying.  1 Samuel 31 tells us that Saul killed himself when even his armor-bearer refused.  Why lie about this?  The Amalekite makes it seem almost an act of mercy—or more likely, he wanted to be remembered as the man who finally put David in power.  Unfortunately the scheme backfired:

11 Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 13 And David said to the young man who told him, “Where do you come from?” And he answered, “I am the son of a sojourner, an Amalekite.” 14 David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to put out your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” 15 Then David called one of the young men and said, “Go, execute him.” And he struck him down so that he died. 16 And David said to him, “Your blood be on your head, for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’”

David wants nothing to do with someone that would take the life of God’s anointed.  The irony, of course, is that the man was never guilty of this crime—yet his bragging only brought him ruin.

Much attention has been given to suicide in recent months—starting with the death of Robin Williams to the scheduled death of Brittney Maynard, a 29 year old cancer patient choosing to end her life on her own terms.  We might add to this list the literally thousands who struggle with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.  What should the Christian response be?

First, contrary to other teachings on the matter, we should recognize that suicide does not equal a trip to hell.  Your acceptance before God is through Jesus.  If a person trusts in Jesus, yet takes their own life, then while God is displeased with that choice it does not remove the grace of His Son.

Secondly, suffering is an integral part of life in a broken world.  Death is inevitable for us all.  Saul surely saw this—as do those suffering with cancer.  So how imminent should death be before we can justify such decisions?  We’re talking, of course, about euthanasia, or assisted suicide.  From an ethical perspective, there are two broad forms.  Passive euthanasia refers to allowing nature—in its cursed form—to follow its natural course.  This might mean withholding or even ceasing treatment from the terminally ill, and allowing their body to shut down.  As Christians, we rightly recognize that this horrific decision does not come easily—but we also should not cling so tightly to the here and now that we fail to prepare ourselves for the journey from nature to eternity.  In his book on the subject, M. Scott Peck—spiritual author as well as physician—repeatedly writes: “Let my people go.”  By that he meant Christians should not be surprised by suffering, nor should we approach death as if it’s truly final.

But active euthanasia, the act of terminating someone’s life through some direct intervention, is much more difficult.  As Christians, we recognize that suffering is never beautiful, never positive, though we might call it enriching.  We need not romanticize the notion of the noble sufferer, but on the other hand we must recognize the way that suffering connects to the core of who we are as humans.  Suicide, therefore, dehumanizes us, suggests that suffering is something that can be opted out of at our discretion.

Let’s not throw rocks.  Each of us faces a “rainbow” all our own.  We will face tough decisions about what to do about suffering—either our own or that of a loved one.  But the gospel promises that because Jesus suffered with us—nay, for us—we can allow our hurts to press us more closely into the character of God.