Note: This analysis is based on William Shea’s article ‘Chiasmus and the Structure of David’s Lament’. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 105, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 13-25 Link to article
The Lament is made up of six couplets. The five complete couplets make up the body of the lament; the introductory and closing lines together form the sixth. The proposed structure relies partly on understanding the length of each Hebrew colon. Each couplet is formed from two cola. Each colon is made up of either two clauses (bicolon) or three clauses (tricolon). Moving through the 5 complete couplets gives this pattern: 2+2, 3+2, 3+3, 3+2, 2+2. Hence a chiastic arrangement is formed simply from the length of the couplets. The Largest couplet comes at the centre of the lament.
What is fascinating is seeing how the formal structure of the Hebrew relates to the content of the Lament.
After the introductory ‘half couplet’ the first half of the lament is comprised of two complete couplets (B and C). B focusses on the enemies of Israel. C focusses on Saul. These couplets reflect the hopelessness and desperation of David’s sorrow.
The central couplet (D) is the largest and is a positive celebration of both Saul and Jonathan. In the first tricola Jonathan is mentioned first followed by Saul. At the beginning of the second tricola the order is reversed and they are mentioned as a pair – ‘Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!’. This centre piece is the climax of the lament occurring immediately before we descend back into the grief that characterised the first half.
The latter half of the Lament begins with the couplet C’ which has thematic parallels with B and C of the first half. The daughters of Israel are now mentioned instead of the daughters of the philistines. Again the lament is for Saul for the majority of the couplet. Then comes a false ending. The opening two lines from A are repeated here in the reverse order to form a potential inclusio. However, the lament is not over. In order to balance the first half we need a final couplet completing the chiastic pattern. If the psalm concluded here the passages dedicated to either Saul or/and Jonathan are unbalanced in favour of Saul. What is missing is exactly what comes next – a couplet dedicated to Jonathan. Jonathan’s mention at the end of C’ prepares for this final complete couplet. Not only does B’ balance the Lament thematically (now Jonathan and Saul are mentioned four times each), but it also balances the poem structurally. The second half has exactly the same number of lines as the first. The use of the false ending gives special status to this final couplet (B’) reflecting David’s great love for his friend Jonathan.
Finally the Lament comes to a close with the real ending (A’). The ‘half couplet’ A’ completes the couplet with its parallel A’.