I Samuel 30:16-31
31 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. 4 Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. 5 When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. 6 So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day. 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. 11 When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,12 all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.
1. The Way the Battle Progressed 1-3
The day of recompense came, in which Saul must account for the blood of the Amalekites which he had sinfully spared, that of the priests which he had even more sinfully shed and that of David, which he would have shed. Now Saul’s day to fall had come, as David had foreseen, when he should descend into battle and perish, (26:10). Come and see the righteous judgments of God.
He saw his soldiers falling all around him, “the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead.” Whether the Philistines were more numerous, better poised, better led, or what other advantages or combination of all these advantages they had, we are not told. But apparently they were more vigorous as they fought against Israel, so the Israelites either fled or fell. The best of the Saul’s troops were put into disarray and many were slain, some of whom would recently have been pursuing David with Saul. Those who had followed Saul and served him in his sin now were required to suffer with him in his fall.
Saul’s sons died in battle which may have caused the victorious Philistines to press even more forcibly on the king of Israel and those with him. The Bible does not give these details, but it is easy to imagine that his three sons were near him and possibly were all three slain right before his face and he could easily feel that his own turn would come next. In Jeremiah’s day King Zedekiah watched his sons die and then his eyes were put out. Saul’s sons are named and it is sad that such a fine son as Jonathan was was among them: that wise, valiant, good man, who was as much David’s friend as Saul was his enemy, yet fell with the rest. Consider Jonathan’s dilemma. His father was king. His best friend was David. Duty to his father would not permit him to stay at home, nor to retire when armies were engaged; and though he never involved himself in the guilt of his father, God would complete Saul’s troubles in his dying moments, and Jonathan too would get a foretaste of the judgment that was to fall upon his house. If the family must fall, Jonathan, who is one in it, must fall with it.
The problem of selecting the next king was simplified. Jonathan’s death would make David’s way to the crown clearer, more natural and easy. Jonathan himself would have cheerfully resigned all his title and interest to David, yet it is possible that many of the people would have made use of his name for the support of the house of Saul, or at least would have more slowly gathered to David. If Ish-bosheth had so many friends, what would Jonathan have had, who had been a successful soldier, a friend of the people who had never lost their favor?
Those that were so anxious to have a king like other nations might be also eager that the line of succession be maintained, especially if it placed the crown upon such a fine head as Jonathan’s. Contention among the people over a choice between David and Jonathan would have embarrassed both of these friends. And if Jonathan could have prevailed to throw the Kingdom to David, then it could have been said that Jonathan made him king, whereas God was to have all the glory. This was the Lord’s doing. So, though the death of Jonathan would be a great affliction to David and remind him that soldiers, even good and righteous soldiers, die in battle, yet by opening his path to the throne, it would be an advantage to him.
Another lesson is that God showed us that the difference and judgment between good and bad is to be made in the next world, not this one. We cannot judge with accuracy the spiritual or eternal state of any by the manner of their death; for it is appointed to every man to die and after that, the judgment, and God is the Judge; not we.
Saul himself is wounded by the Philistines and then slain by his own hand. The archers hit him. We do not know how sever the injury was. Possibly he could now neither fight nor fly, and therefore must inevitably fall into their hands. When King Ahab was hit by a random arrow in battle, he did his best to survive; but not Saul. Was God intentionally causing Saul to suffer a long slow death as a judgment?Did Saul feel himself dying? We don’ t know, but we do know that he had reached such an extremity that he preferred to die by the hand of his own servant rather than by the hand of the Philistines. Perhaps he thought of Samson who was abused by the Philistines. Miserable man! He finds himself dying, and all his thoughts are to keep his body out of the hands of the Philistines, instead of being eager to put his soul into God’s hands. “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7). As he lived, so he died, proud and jealous, and a terror to himself and all about him. Those who rightly understand the opportunity of earthy life as the vestibule of the great house, do what they can to prepare well in the entryway so as to make life in the great house all the better. Pity those like Saul and Judas who leap into a hell before them, to escape a hell within them.
2. The Way Saul Responded 4-6
When Saul could not obtain the requested favor from his armor bearer, he became his own executioner, thinking to avoid shame, but he ran into a heinous sin and and became a self-murderer. Jonathan, received his death-wound from the hand of the Philistines and bravely yielded to the fate of war, and died on the bed of honor; but Saul died as a fool dies, a coward, a proud fool, a sneaking coward; he died as a man that had neither fear of God nor hope in God, neither the reason of a man nor the religion of an Israelite, much less the dignity of a king or the resolution of a soldier. Let us all pray, Lord, lead us not into temptation, this temptation. His armor-bearer would not kill him, and he did well to refuse it; for no man’s servant ought to be a slave to his master’s lusts or passions of any kind. The reason given is that he was terrified, apparently not of death, for he himself accepted death, but terrified perhaps to touch the Lord’s anointed.
His armor-bearer who refused to kill him did not refuse to die with him, “he too fell on his sword and died with him.” Saul’s sin of self-murder served to exacerbate the difficulties on this battlefield, for by the example of his wickedness in murdering himself, he pulled in his servant to be guilty of the same wickedness, and did not perish alone in his sin. Some say that Saul’s armor-bearer was Doeg, to whom he gave the dignity and position of armor-bearer for killing the priests, and, if so, justly does his violent dealing with God’s priests return on his own head, reaping what he sowed. David had foretold this about Doeg as he wrote in Psalm 52 when Doeg went to Saul. Verse 5 of that Psalm says, “Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.”
3. How the Israelites Responded 7
The country was put into such confusion by the rout of Saul’s army that the inhabitants of Israelite cities on both sides of the Jordan abandoned their homes and the Philistines, for a time, lived in them until things were settled in Israel. It was a sad state to which Israel had deteriorated during the years of Saul and probably would have stayed that way for a much longer time had not God been preparing David to take the throne. See what a king Saul proved to be for whom they rejected God and Samuel. They had done wickedly as well as he, and as I Sam. 12:25 says, “Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish.” And so it happened. And even years later the prophet Hosea said in Hosea 13:10-11, “Where is your king, that he may save you? Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’ So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.” Israel, he was a plague to you living and dying; you could expect no other.
The scripture makes no mention of the souls of Saul and his sons, about what became of them after they were dead. We are only told about their bodies.
4. What the Philistines Did 8-10
An amazing thought is hidden away in the description of the Philistine recovery of the body of Saul and his sons. “The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa” (8). Saul and his sons were basely abused by the Philistines. Yes, but when? The day after the battle, when they had recovered their fatigue, they came to strip the slain, and, among other fallen soldiers they found the bodies of Saul and his three sons. Saul’s armor-bearer would have done a greater honor to his master if he had waited until night and, under cover of darkness, given to Saul and his three sons a decent burial. For that matter, Saul himself might have saved himself the fatal thrust and have made good his escape, for the pursuers, whom he feared so much that he killed himself before they got to him, did not come to that place throughout the entire night and not until the next morning did they find Saul and sons.
This may mean that Saul need not have killed himself! Might he have been safe if he had simply laid down and waited for an opportunity to escape? Why didn’t he? Verse 3 says the Philistines, “wounded him critically;” it does not say they killed him. He had a great misperception of reality. He possibly could have lived, repented, made things right, served his people nobly and died an old and honored man. The Philistines did not come to where Saul had killed himself until the next day. Saul did this to himself. Is there some of Saul in each of us? I fear so. We misperceive what is happening and self destruct in our discouragement, fear, pessimistic tendency to think the worst, instead of hoping in God for the best. Yes, the witch had brought up Samuel and Samuel had said that Saul and his sons would soon be with him, but there is irony in the way Saul, after self destructing in small ways for many years, misperceiving reality for a long time, now made the final miscalculation, fearing an enemy that was not there and would not be there for hours, he dashed his own hopes. There is enough coming against us. It is sad to be injured, but let us not injure ourselves.
The Philistines found Saul’s body which now that it lay extended on the bloody turf was distinguishable from the rest by its length, just as it was that while erect it was taller than others, now they see a corpse longer than the others. They cut off his head so that he was no longer a head taller (or longer), but brought down to the level others. If they had wanted to avenge Goliath’s head they had better lifted David’s head.
They stripped him of his armor and sent that to be set up as a trophy of their victory, in the house of Ashtaroth their goddess, and I Chron. 10:10 adds "They put his armor in the temple of their gods and hung up his head in the temple of Dagon.” They gave honor for their victory to Dagon, not as they ought to have done to ascribe the justice to the true and real God. They give glory to Ashtaroth, the very idol that Israel had many a time gone chasing and whoring after. They sent messages throughout their country, and ordered public notice to be given in the houses of their gods of the victory they had obtained that public rejoicings might be made and thanks given to their gods. David regretted this greatly and in his poem honoring Saul and Jonathan (see II Sam1:20) wrote, ““Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon.”
They fastened his body and the bodies of his sons to the wall of Beth-shan, (31:12) a city not far from Gilboa and very near to the river Jordan. To that place the dead bodies were dragged and hung up in chains, to be devoured by the birds of prey. Saul slew himself to avoid being abused by the Philistines, yet his royal corpse was abused. Saul failed even his attempt to preserve his corpse from abuse. He thought to save his honor by the sin of self-murder and certainly lost both life and honor. The Philistines, however, enjoyed only a brief time of rejoicing over Israel. Soon David would lead Israel to great victories (as this series and the story it tells continues). See the pride of the Philistines just before David who perfectly subdued them, was raised up. Now that they had slain Saul and his sons they thought the land of Israel was theirs forever, but they soon found themselves deceived. When God has accomplished his work by them he will next accomplish it on them. (See Is. 10:6-7)
5. What the People of Jabesh Gilead Did 11-13
The men of Jabesh-Gilead bravely rescued the corpses. Little more than the river Jordan lies between Beth-shan and Jabesh-Gilead, and the Jordan in that place is small and easy to cross. It is just south of Tiberius where I lived in Israel. Nevertheless it was a bold adventure by the valiant men of that city, who in the night crossed the river, took down the dead bodies, and gave them decent burial.
They probably had two motives. One for Israel’s honor for the land of Israel ought not be defiled by the exposing of any dead bodies, especially of the crown of Israel and, secondly, because Saul had done the people of Jabesh Gilead a great favor 40 or 41 years earlier when the Ammonites attacked them. It is an evidence of a generous spirit and an encouragement to the goodness of men when the remembrance of kindnesses is observed. The men of Jabesh-Gilead would have done Saul better service if they had sent their valiant men to him sooner, to strengthen him against the Philistines. But his day had come to fall, and now this is all the service they can do him, in honor of his memory.
We do not find that any general mourning was made for the death of Saul, as was for the death of Samuel (I Sam. 25:1), only those Gileadites of Jabesh did him honor at his death; they burned the bodies and buried them. They also fasted seven days, probably that is, each day of the seven they fasted till the evening; thus they lamented the death of Saul. David, however, wrote a profound song, a lament, about Saul and Jonathon from which we will learn in a later chapter how to better love our enemies as David did.
I Samuel began with the birth of Samuel and ends with the burial of Saul. We may compare these two men and learn to prefer honor that comes from God over the honors this world pretends to have to give. Both Samuel and David were much better leaders than Saul. Samuel heard God’s voice and was a man of prayer, David was generous and a sincere worshipper while Saul was selfish and jealous. The Bible makes it easy for us to identify the best leadership qualities so we may choose them for ourselves.