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David Guzik :: Study Guide for 1 Samuel 31

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The Death of Saul and His Sons

A. King Saul and his sons die in battle.

1. (1Sa 31:1) The battle turns against Israel.

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.

a. So the Philistines fought against Israel: The Philistines had attacked deep into Israeli territory (1 Samuel 28:4), and Saul's army assembled and prepared for battle at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 28:4). Because of his deep rebellion against the LORD, Saul was not ready for battle: When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly (1 Samuel 28:5).

i. Instead of taking his fears to the LORD, Saul made things even worse by seeking God's voice through a spirit medium. Strangely, God did speak to Saul, but God spoke words of judgment to Saul through an unusual appearance of the prophet Samuel. Samuel told Saul that he and his sons would die the next day (1 Samuel 28:19). 1 Samuel 31:1 is the next day.

ii. The Philistines fought against Israel, and David wanted to be part of this group of Philistines (1 Samuel 29:2, 8). It was the LORD's mercy that did not allow David to take up with these enemies of the LORD.

b. The men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa: Gilboa was the location of the Israeli army camp (1 Samuel 28:4), so the battle has turned so badly for Israel that they are in full retreat, back to their own camp.

2. (1Sa 31:2) The death of Saul's sons.

Then the Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul's sons.

a. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul's sons: Tragically, Saul's sons are affected in the judgment of God against their father Saul.

i. The brave and worthy Jonathan dies as we might expect him to - loyally fighting for his God, his country, and his father the king unto the very end.

b. Their death was tragic, yet important in God's plan. In taking the logical heirs to Saul's throne, God cleared the way for David to become the next king of Israel. We know that if Jonathan had survived, he would have gladly yielded the throne to David (1 Samuel 18:1-4). But the same could not be said of Saul's other sons, so God was merciful to the nation and to David in taking Saul's sons in battle. God was also merciful to Jonathan, sparing him the ordeal of having to side with David against his own brothers.

i. "There was also a special providence of God in taking away Jonathan, (who of all Saul's sons seems to have been the fairest for the crown,) for the preventing divisions, which have happened amongst the people concerning the successor; David's way to the crown being by this means made the more clear." (Poole)

ii. As it was, David had to deal with Ishbosheth, the one surviving son of Saul before taking the undisputed throne of Israel (2 Samuel 2:8 through 4:12).

3. (1Sa 31:3-6) The tragic end of King Saul.

The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armorbearer, "Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me." But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him. So Saul, his three sons, his armorbearer, and all his men died together that same day.

a. The battle became intense against Saul: Saul, struck by many arrows and severely wounded, knew the battle was completely lost. He pleads with his armorbearer to kill him, and when he will not, Saul kills himself (Saul took a sword and fell on it).

i. "The flower of his army lay strewn around him; the chivalry of Israel was quenched in rivers of blood. Then, leaving all others, the Philistines concentrated their attack on that lordly figure which towered amid the fugitives, the royal crown on the helmet, the royal bracelet flashing on his arm." (Meyer)

ii. In the way most people think of suicide, Saul's death was not suicide. Clarke explains well: "He was to all appearance mortally wounded, when he begged his armourbearer to extinguish the remaining spark of life … though this wound accelerated his death, yet it could not be properly the cause of it, as he was mortally wounded before, and did it on the conviction that he could not survive."

iii. Yet, how does God feel about suicide? It is sin; it is the sin of self-murder. Yet, we are wrong if we regard it as the unforgivable sin, and anyone who does commit suicide has given in to the lies and deceptions of Satan, whose purpose is to kill and destroy (John 10:10).

iv. "Suicide is always the ultimate action of cowardice. In the case of Saul, and in many similar cases, it is perfectly natural; but let it never be glorified as heroic. It is the last resort of the man who dare not stand up to life." (Morgan)

b. As sad as anything is in this account, sad is the absence of any kind of sorrow or repentance or crying out to God at all on Saul's part. He was told the previous day that he would die (1 Samuel 28:19), yet he does not seem to have prepared his soul to meet God in any way.

i. The events of this chapter happened some 20 years after Saul first heard the announcement of judgment against him from the prophet Samuel. Perhaps Saul thought that time was on his side, because God's announced judgment did not happen immediately. But time was against him, because in the 20 years since, his heart became more hard against God.

ii. At the end of his life, Saul had become so hardened in sin that he did not want to repent. Many people put off getting right with God until a later time, assuming they will still want to get right with God then. But that is a dangerous, dangerous assumption, because repentance is a gift from God, and if it is here today it should be received today.

iii. "It is a very solemn thought! No career could begin with fairer, brighter prospects than Saul had, and none could close in more absolute midnight of despair; and yet such a fate may befall us, unless we watch, and pray, and walk humbly with our God." (Meyer)

c. In 2 Samuel 1:4-10, an Amalekite came to David with the report that Saul had died in battle, and that he had actually delivered the death-blow to Saul. Does the Amalekite's statement contradict this passage, where it seems Saul killed himself? It may be that Saul fell on his sword, and life still lingered in him, so he asked this Amalekite to finish him off. Or it may be that the Amalekite simply lied, and was the first one to come upon Saul's dead body, and that he told David that he killed him because he thought David would be pleased and he would be rewarded.

B. Aftermath of the Philistine's victorious battle.

1. (1Sa 31:7) A significant defeat for Israel.

And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were on the other side of the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.

a. They forsook the cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them: The victory of the Philistines was so complete that even those on the other side of the Jordan fled in terror before the Philistines. With the Philistine army occupying territory on the other side of the Jordan, they have cut Israel in half, drawing a line from west to east. The rest of the nation is ripe for total conquest by the Philistines.

i. As the Philistines routed the land, Jonathan had a five-year-old son named Mephibosheth who was injured and left lame as he fled (2 Samuel 4:4). King David's later kindness to Mephibosheth is one of the more touching stories of David's life (2 Samuel 9:1-13).

b. This great defeat came when God's people saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead. When the leader (King Saul) was struck, it spread panic among God's people. Jesus knew this same principle would be used against His own disciples: Then Jesus said to them, "All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: 'I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'" (Mark 14:27)

i. In Jesus' case, He knew that after the glory of His triumph on the cross and over death at the empty tomb, the disciples would once again be gathered unto Him. But this isn't always the case today when a leader of God's work falls. Ideally, people would look to the LORD instead of stumbling themselves over a leader's fall, but this doesn't always happen.

c. Saul's sin, hardened rebellion, and eventual ruin affected far more than himself and even his immediate family. It literally endangered the entire nation of Israel.

i. This shows why leaders have a higher responsibility, because their fall can endanger many more people than the fall of someone who is not a leader. This is why the New Testament openly preaches a higher standard for leaders, even saying they should be blameless for just cause before the world and God's people (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).

2. (1Sa 31:8-10) The Philistines disgrace the corpses of King Saul and his sons.

So it happened the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. And they cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and sent word throughout the land of the Philistines, to proclaim it in the temple of their idols and among the people. Then they put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.

a. Saul's tragic death gave opportunity for the enemies of the LORD to disgrace His name. First, they gave the ultimate insult to Saul; in that culture, to have your dead body treated this way was considered a fate worse than death itself. Second, Saul's death was used to glorify pagan gods and to mock the living God (to proclaim it in the temple of their idols and among the people).

b. They fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan: You can go to the ruins of Beth Shan today, as the foundations to the city sit high on a hill overlooking the Roman ruins destroyed in an earthquake. It was high on that hill that the Philistines hung the decapitated corpse of King Saul in the ultimate humiliation.

3. (1Sa 31:11-13) The valiant men of Jabesh Gilead end the disgrace of Saul and his sons.

Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and traveled 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. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.

a. All the valiant men arose: In a time of disgrace, loss, and tragedy like this, God still has His valiant men to do His work. The men of Jabesh Gilead took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from their place of humiliation and gave them a proper burial.

i. Glory to God, He always has His valiant men! When one servant passes the scene, another arises to take his place. If Saul is gone, God raises up a David. If the army of Israel is utterly routed, God still has His valiant men. God's work is bigger than any man, or any group of people.

b. The inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead are also recognized for their gratitude. Many years before, Saul delivered their city from the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-11), and they repay the kindness God showed them from the hand of Saul. Upon taking the throne, David rightly thanked these valiant men for their kindness to the memory of Saul, Jonathan, and Saul's other sons (2 Samuel 2:4-7).

c. When David heard of Saul's death, he did not rejoice. In fact, he mourned and composed a song in honor of Saul and Jonathan (The Song of the Bow, 2 Samuel 1:11-27). In spite of all that Saul did against David, David spoke well of Saul after his death.

i. David called Saul the beauty of Israel (2 Samuel 1:19).

ii. David wanted no one to rejoice in Saul's death (2 Samuel 1:20).

iii. David wanted everyone to mourn, even the mountains and fields (2 Samuel 1:21).

iv. David praised Saul as a mighty warrior (2 Samuel 1:22-23).

v. David complimented the personality and loyalty of Saul (2 Samuel 1:23).

vi. David called Israel to mourning, and called on others to praise Saul for the good he did for Israel (2 Samuel 1:24).

d. How did David keep his heart free from bitterness, and keep himself in a place where he could speak so wonderfully about a man who had hurt him so much?

i. David chose to trust in the power and authority of God. He chose to believe that God was in control and must have a purpose even for terrible things that He allows to happen. Many, many times we can only see the good in retrospect. If you can't see the good in something terrible that has happened to you, you must simply trust that it is there, and it will be revealed in time.

ii. David chose to "let it go." He chose not to hold on to bitterness and hurt. David had two great opportunities to kill Saul, and "let him go" each time. David's "Song of the Bow" in 2 Samuel 1 shows that this attitude was in his heart, not only in his actions. David could have murdered Saul in his heart a thousand times over, but never doing it in his actions. His heart in the Song of the Bow shows that he didn't even murder Saul in his heart; he "let him go" there also. To do this, David must have kept a short account of the wrongs Saul did to him.

iii. David chose to think the best about Saul. He couldn't have spontaneously said the things he said about Saul in the Song of the Bow unless they had been in his heart and mind before that. One of the characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is Love thinks no evil.

iv. David chose to remember that God had forgiven him. David heard the news of Saul's death and sang the "Song of the Bow" when he was in Ziklag (2 Samuel 1:1). The city was still filled with burned rubble that was the indirect result of David's backsliding and sin. David had just come from a time when the LORD had graciously forgiven him - how could he not show a gracious heart towards Saul's memory.

v. David chose to keep doing these things. Many people can set their heart right for a moment, but it is quickly lost. Whenever that happened to David, he put his heart back in the right place quickly.

e. Choosing this kind of heart showed David to be a true "Man after God's Own Heart." It showed that the years in the wilderness, escaping Saul, really were years when God trained him to be a king, and a king after God's own heart. David would never follow in the same tragic footsteps as King Saul.

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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