You can read the passage here.
Today is our last day in the book of 1 Samuel. Which, as you know, means that we’re halfway through the book of Samuel. However, the division of the book (i.e. 1 and 2 Samuel) marks a conclusion to the narrative sequence we’ve been following for the past many weeks – that is, the story of the fall of king Saul and the rise of David.
Now the first thing I want to say about this passage is that, inasmuch as it wraps up the story of David’s rise and Saul’s fall, it also wraps up the narrative block that we’ve been discussing over the past few weeks – though it does so almost as an epilogue.
I mentioned that the last several chapters may not be arranged as a unit per se, but they seem to share several important connections. We’ve gone over the thematic connections already so I won’t review them here. However, perhaps the most noteworthy connection is that the progress of Saul’s story and the progress of David’s story are interwoven. That is, we don’t get the story of Saul, and then the story of David (or whatever). Rather, the two stories are told simultaneously.
At any rate, what we saw in last week’s passage (chap. 30) was among other things, the beginning of David’s kingdom. That is, as David defeated the Amalekites, he took the plunder (which the Amalekites had taken from the Israelites) and distributed it among various towns. With this action, David began to build support for himself, not just among his soldiers, but among the towns and people that would become part of his kingdom.
So in our passage today, we see the closing moments of Saul’s reign. And the end of Saul’s reign as king of Israel signals a definitive beginning of David’s (as opposed to, for example, merely a preparation). Now this much is probably relatively obvious (at least I hope it is at this point). But in wrapping up this story-line, I want to point out a few things that this story shows us.
The first few verses of our passage basically highlight the point we just made – that is, this is the end of Saul’s kingdom. We read:
1 Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. 3 The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.1 Samuel 31: 1-3
We know that the Philistines have been Israel’s mortal enemies throughout Samuel so far (we’re side-stepping the Amalekites for now). It’s the Philistines that David defeated, first in the person of Goliath, and then in numerous battles throughout 1 Samuel. And here, we see that the Philistines are finally victorious over Israel. The text indicates that many Israelites fell on Mount Gilboa. But more importantly, it tells us that several of Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua) were also killed in the battle.
Now this is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it fulfills the word of Samuel (we’re assuming that this is actually Samuel, here – we won’t get into the debate as to what spirit actually appeared to Saul) back in chap. 28 when he says:
19 The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”1 Samuel 28: 19
Of course, we remember that this word is merely a repetition of the judgement that Saul brought upon himself back in chapter 13, when he offered the sacrifice at Gilgal, and in chapter 15, when he refused to completely destroy the Amalekites:
13 “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”1 Samuel 13: 13-14
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,1 Samuel 15: 23
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.”
So in short, what we’re seeing in our passage today is that not only does Saul die (in a couple of verses) but the majority of his sons die as well. That is, Saul’s disobedience results not only in his own death, but in the cutting off of his entire lineage. It’s not just his life that he loses, but his kingdom – this is likely what 13:13 &14 is referring to.
The next few verses (4-6) describe Saul’s final moments. He is mortally wounded, but wants his armor-bearer to kill him in order to save him from capture by the Philistines.
Saul’s fear here is that, in capture, Saul would essentially be tortured and his body dishonoured and desecrated by the Philistines. This would have been a fairly common practice in war-time in this culture. In other words, Saul would rather die at the hands of his own servant (or his own hands) than leave his fate to the Philistines.
The armor-bearer’s refusal to grant Saul’s request seems more likely to be a refusal to kill God’s anointed than a reluctance to take life per se (that is, his action is not a repudiation of euthanasia in this text). This is indicated to me by the fact that he immediately takes his own life after Saul’s death (i.e. God’s anointed is dead; hope is gone).
Now on the one hand, the armor-bearer’s refusal to kill Saul echoes David’s refusal to kill Saul in the two prior opportunities. And David’s reluctance, remember, was that Saul was God’s anointed. Though David doesn’t elaborate on this, it is reasonable to assume that David felt that, as God’s anointed, Saul’s life was in God’s hands alone. And, though we can’t know for sure what was in his mind, the armor-bearer may share the same understanding.
And all of that is to say that this may actually point to the sinfulness of Saul’s own action (though it is easy to understand in light of the pending abuse and treatment by the Philistines if he is taken alive). In taking his own life, is Saul making one final repudiation of God’s sovereignty? Is his final act an act of choosing for himself instead of trusting God?
We can’t know that either. And I can’t say with confidence that the text is actually leading us in that direction. It’s just something that I’m wondering, though it seems to me to fit with what we have seen from Saul.
What we can say is that the text is telling us that Saul’s kingdom has definitively come to an end. In the next few verses, we read:
7 When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. 10 They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.1 Samuel 31: 7-10
In verse 7, we read that in the aftermath of the Philistine victory, several towns were abandoned by the Israelites and taken over by the Philistines.
And in verses 8-10, we read about what happens to Saul’s body. And in particular, we should note that news of Saul’s defeat was sent to “the temple of their idols,” and that Saul’s armour was placed “in the temple of the Ashtoreths.” Without digging into what’s going on, what we essentially see is that, at least according to the Philistines, their gods have won. The gods of the Philistines have overcome the god of Saul.
So if I had to summarize what’s going on in this passage, thinking about these elements of the story that we’ve reviewed, I might say this:
Primarily (and again), this story concludes the transition from Saul’s kingdom to David’s rise. It concludes the movement from Saul to David.
In doing so, it shows the complete failure of, and end to, Saul’s kingdom or dynasty. It’s not left in doubt that perhaps Saul was an okay (in some way), but tragic figure. It doesn’t leave open the possibility that Saul or his kingdom will be redeemed in some way.
And it does this, at least in part, by showing that even in his death, Saul is completely divorced from or disconnected from God and God’s will.
And finally, through all of this, the text reaffirms that the fate of Israel is in God’s hands alone. What God promised regarding the kingdom and rule of Saul has come to pass – it could not be otherwise. And this tells us that it is God’s purposes for Israel that alone matter.
Now once again, this is only the halfway point in the book of Samuel. As such, we are only part-way through the story of David. But to this point, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about Saul (along with David and, to a lesser extent, Samuel). And this is indeed an ignominious end to the story of Saul, Israel’s first king. And to be clear, Saul from the beginning never seemed to be the One. From his first calling, it never seemed like Saul was someone who was truly aligned with God’s purposes.
But to the people of Israel, it must have been extremely exciting to see Saul anointed as king. They undoubtedly knew the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, their receiving of the Law of Moses, the taking and settling of the land of Canaan. They probably remembered Othniel, Gideon, Samson and Israel’s other judges. And to finally have a king would mean they finally arrived as a nation like all the other nations of the world – which is what they thought it was all about. They might have even seen it as the fulfillment of God’s promises. They might have thought that this was what it meant to be blessed, to be God’s people, to be God’s own possession.
But here is Saul, dead by his own hand, and scattered to the idols of the Philistines.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes been discouraged by the many reports of the failures of Christian leaders and Christian ‘movements.’ Recently, we have heard (though I acknowledge you may not be aware of or care about these things), the reports coming out of Hillsong Church, the news coming out of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest denomination in the US), and the on-going revelations from the Roman Catholic Church (and these are just some of the bigger news items). Not long ago, I read about the allegations of sexual misconduct by Bruxy Cavey (formerly the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in Canada), and similar allegations against the late Ravi Zacharias (renowned apologist). I remember when I heard the same reports against Jean Vanier (founder of L’Arche). And only a little further in the past, you might remember the demise of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, the humiliation of Jimmy Baker and Jimmy Swaggart. And this list is unfortunately far from complete.
Now my intent here is not to name and shame famous Christian leaders (for I am certainly no better than any of them). But I simply want to point out (as we undoubtedly already know) that human beings, even those ostensibly in service of the Lord, so often fall, so frequently fail, so easily tarnish the name of God.
Could the Israelites have looked at Saul’s life and not been disappointed? Could the death of the anointed at the hands of their enemies caused them to lose faith in God’s purposes? In God’s ability and power to fulfill His purposes? Granted, in the narrative, there is little or no space between Saul’s death and David’s kingdom, so perhaps they simply didn’t have time for disappointment. But I suspect that at least some among them found ample cause in Saul’s life and death to be discouraged.
And likewise, if we look at human efforts, if we think the monuments of man are the same as the kingdom of God, we are likely to doubt. If we think that the kingdom of God is the same as our successes, our achievements, and our glory, we will certainly be disenchanted. Shockingly (or not), we continue to build those monuments, seek our own successes and glory. And we may wonder why God isn’t pleased at this great thing that I’ve built. [‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’]. And then when the great thing crumbles (when my thing crumbles), we wonder, “where is God?”
But all human beings, the greatest and the lowliest, are unavoidably sinners. And all human kingdoms, the greatest and the lowliest, inevitably fall.
And yet, God’s kingdom is being built. God, the Sovereign, God the Holy, God the great Judge, Arbiter and Sustainer of the universe is establishing His kingdom, sometimes through us, and oftentimes in spite of us. But it’s God’s kingdom.
Now at this point, it’s worth saying something about David. Because though Saul’s kingdom has ended, this simply points to the establishment of David’s kingdom, doesn’t it? And isn’t David’s kingdom held up as the greatest period of peace and posterity in Israel?
Well, sure. But we need to remember the whole story. And, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, David’s kingdom did not last. In fact, it did not last much longer after his death. And during David’s own rule, Israel prospered, true. But one of the key moments in David’s’ life, the one that is often on our minds second only (perhaps) to the battle with Goliath, is his sin with Bathsheba. David took a married woman and had her husband killed, for his own pleasure, his own whim. We won’t get into the significance of how this impacted David’s kingdom now, but suffice it to say, David’s kingdom and David’s rule was not all it could have been and far from what it should have been.
My point simply is that, even David, the one held up as the paradigmatic king of Israel, the one described as a man after God’s own heart, even his kingdom eventually (and quickly) fell into despair because of human sinfulness. And the Israelites, for centuries after, would long for a return to the Davidic kingship, hoping that with the coming of the son of David, they would recover what they had lost. But any time we put our hope and our faith in human beings, we cannot expect anything but to be disappointed (of course, here I’m talking specifically about redemption, restoration, kingdom work).
But God was doing something better. God was doing something bigger. In Jesus Christ, the work of God to restore a fallen creation, to redeem a fallen humanity, is finally complete.
So what I’m trying to get across to us all, what we might take from this Saul narrative, is that in Saul we see what is ultimately a tragic figure, and a tragic end to his part of the story of Israel. But this does not mean that hope is lost. It doesn’t even mean that hope is diminished. Because our hope is not in Saul; our hope is not in David; our hope is in no human being, no human creation, no human institution. Our hope is in God alone. And God’s will, His purpose, His work to redeem human beings and restore creation, cannot be frustrated, cannot be circumvented, it cannot be stopped.
So praise be to God that we can have hope in Him, in Christ alone.