Scripture: 1 Samuel 31
This morning, we return to our study of Samuel with the death of King Saul.
1 Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.
Mountains in the Old Testament are generally associated with worship. Saul dies on a mountain, in a sense providing a sacrifice to remove the curse of his own rule from the land.
2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.
The death of Jonathan feels like a real tragedy, especially because it happens with no fanfare. He has been an important part of the story and a good, honorable man. But this was the plan of God. Jonathan served his purpose and now he dies beside his father.
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.
We studied chapter 30 several weeks ago but remember that David’s life was also in jeopardy. David’s own men wanted to kill him, because the Amalekites had pillaged their city and taken their families. But David, faced with the possibility of death again, turned to God again. The text says that David “strengthened himself in the Lord.”
David in peril, turned to God. Saul in peril, took his own life. These two stories, side by side, highlight the main theme of 1 Samuel one last time. Is God enough? Will you trust Him? Will you fear God more than men, or circumstances, or anything else?
Fearing God, if you remember, means giving Him ultimate weight in your life. It means ascribing to Him the glory, or the weight, that He deserves. And Saul proves it is a matter of life and death.
And this was not a surprise to God. This was God’s plan. Saul was meant to die that day on that mountain in that way.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
The fact that Saul’s body remained to be plundered by the Philistines is significant. In ancient times, soldiers never abandoned the body of their king like this. It means his men had already fled in fear or they didn’t care enough about Saul to give him a decent burial. Either way, Saul died alone and abandoned.
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.
Once again, this was not a surprise to God. This was the plan of God. Saul and his household were being punished as God intended.
But in the eyes of the Philistines, this was a victory of their god over the Hebrew God. It says they carried the good news to the people. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Yahweh defeated by Ashtaroth! Saul and his sons hang dead on the walls of our city!
They underestimate God, of course. This is a temporary defeat and there is a hint of the Gospel, even in this defeat.
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.
The men of Jabesh-Gilead show bravery in reclaiming the body of Saul. They remembered Saul’s rescue mission early in his reign and God uses them to give Saul a proper burial.
God only allows His anointed king to hang in disgrace for a brief moment, but this was the first official king of Israel hanging dead on a city wall.
Do you remember the song of Hannah from chapter 2? Hannah was the mother of Samuel and she said this:
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
God raised Saul up and God brought Saul down. But put yourself in the shoes of the Israelites in this moment. Our army is defeated. Our king, the one we asked God to provide, is dead. His sons are all dead, so we can’t make one of them a king. The average Israelite must have been scared and confused. Is it our fault or God’s fault? Either way, it feels like failure. It feels like defeat.
What do we do now?
I bet the disciples felt something similar on the weekend after Jesus died.
Their rabbi had been brutally killed; his body hung on a cross for everyone to see – Satan basking in what looked like God’s defeat.
Think of the women in Mark 16. On the morning of the third day, they went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They didn’t actually know how they were going to do it, with a giant stone rolled over the tomb – but they went because it was the right thing to do.
He may be dead, but He was still our rabbi. Just as the men of Jabesh-Gilead went to retrieve Saul’s body. He may be dead, but He was still our king.
This connection between the death of Saul and the death of Jesus seems obvious, with one important difference. Saul, of course, deserved it. Jesus, of course, did not.
Jesus was brought low and then exalted by God. The women discovered an empty tomb. There was no body to anoint with spices, because God’s anointed One was alive!
We have to see the big picture because the big picture tells us something important about God. God’s glory is very high on God’s agenda. He was not content to let Israel have a “king like all the other nations”.
1 Samuel 31 uses the word “fell” four times. The men of Israel fell slain on Mount Gilboa. Saul fell on his sword. The armor bearer fell on his sword. The Philistines discovered Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
This is significant because the same form of this word was used back in 1 Samuel 5. I want us to read part of that story again.
1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.
3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.
4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
God is such a good storyteller; I don’t think this is a coincidence. The false god fell with his head cut off. But there’s another example in 1 Samuel 17.
49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
The giant fell and David cut off his head.
What’s the connection? In the end, God protected His glory even from his own king. Saul fell and his head was cut off, just like the false god and the pagan warrior. Saul fell short of the glory of God. And this is me and you in the story. Romans 3. All have fallen short of the glory of God.
God’s glory is very high on God’s agenda. The question is, how high is God’s glory on our agenda? How much does His glory matter to us?
I know that sounds like a very churchy question. I even struggle to find a good answer to that question but think back over the stories in 1 Samuel. What’s the real difference between someone who cares about God’s glory and someone who doesn’t?
The answer, I think, is what you do in a moment of crisis. Story after story. Crisis after crisis. This has been the recurring question.
In a time of crisis, do you reach for God and His strength – or your own?
Before the people had a king, the Philistines captured the ark and God brought it back without help from anyone else. He used two milk cows and a cart.
Saul lost the kingdom when he stopped listening to God.
In contrast, David showed us that every victory belongs to God. When David killed Goliath, he didn’t do it to make a name for himself. What did he say? “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
And at the end of Saul’s life, while David faced the same threat of death and reached out to God, Saul reached for his own sword.
And that is a picture of all humanity. In the end, at the point of crisis, we will reach for God and His strength, or we will fall on our own sword.
Saul rejected God in that moment, consumed by pride and unbelief, and so will we apart from Christ.
Brothers and sisters, it is in the moments of crisis that our faith is tested. Is God enough? Will you trust Him? Will you fear God more than men, or circumstances, or anything else? This is our calling – 1 Peter 5
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, it is one of the ways that Jesus himself promises to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us. It preaches the Gospel to us. It reminds us that we are not getting what we deserve. Jesus took what we deserve and gives us a seat at His table. We have all fallen short of the glory of God, but the suffering and humility of Jesus – our King – has brought us near to God.