“So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor.”
After the brief interlude with David’s response to the attack at Ziklag, we are now returned to Saul. We pick up with the march of that Philistine army and their judgment-attack on Saul and Israel—both from which David was so providentially spared. Saul, freshly returned from his séance at Endor, was about to realize the fulfillment of the prophecy he received there from Samuel: “the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 28:19). So we are about to witness the death of Saul, and the subsequent covenantal death of Saul’s Israeli administration. Judgment day had come.
Are there lessons here for us? Yes. Indeed, there are dire warnings here for us.
Waves of Death
When David left the Philistines three days ago (chapter 29), they were about to attack Israel. The narrative picks up here with that attack in full swing and considerably advanced, for they had already fought their way through Israel’s ranks and had come within range of Saul on Mt. Gilboa. The battle closed in upon Saul, and he was badly wounded by the archers (31:3). Just as the great and powerful, armor-clad Goliath was felled by a projectile, so could the massive Saul fall as well, and did. I imagine he had multiple arrows stuck deeply into his flesh at various points. He was immobilized, and no longer able to fight.
Saul believed he was finished. Even if he could hold on alive, he was a sitting duck for the Philistines. And he knew that if they captured the Israelite king alive, they would mock him, abuse him, and torture him just for sport before they finally filled him. This is all he could think about. As usual, as it has been throughout his life, in his dying moments, Saul’s only thoughts are selfish thoughts. To avoid the sure fate at the hands of the Philistines, Saul ordered his armor-bearer to finish him off before the Philistines could get there.
We discussed armor-bearers in chapter 14 with Jonathan. We discussed the issue of uncompromising loyalty they represented. These guys were trained to put their lives at risk in order to preserve their master’s. Thus, it seems, Saul’s armor-bearer was receiving an order that conflicted with everything he stood for. He would rather die and see Saul killed, let alone kill Saul himself. He could not carry out the order.
But Saul at this point could see no higher virtue than death. Considering all of the rebellion and rejection of God his administration represents, the Proverb comes to mind: “he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36). Saul’s life of autonomous rebellion had reached its culmination point: it was clear now that he loved death. And since his armor-bearer could not finish the task, he did it himself: Saul took his own sword and fell upon it (31:4). It was Saul’s last act of doing things his way. It was suicide.
The nature of Saul’s death here in the heights of Mt. Gilboa provides a panoramic view of the selfishness and rebellion of his entire career. Virtually everything he did was self-centered, self-promotional, self-glorifying, or in some way concerned with only him and his. In chapter 9 we saw him cut short his work because he feared his father would be worried for him. In 10:20–24, we saw him hiding from his calling as king, fearful of responsibility. By 13:8–14, we find him usurping the role of Samuel and offering sacrifices. In 14:44, he is so concerned with saving face in regard to the enforcement of a ridiculous arbitrary statute, he was willing to execute his own son. In 15, he refused to carry out the Lord’s command utterly, as if his own plans for the spoil of the Amalekites could be superior to God’s. In that same chapter, after he is rejected by God, He appeals to Samuel to “restore” him through the appearance of acceptance before the people. In 18:10–16, he attempts to kill David out of pure jealousy. In 19:10, he tried a second time. In 20:30–31, he curses Jonathan and his own wife because Jonathan supported David, and he reveals his only reason has to do with his own heirs remaining on the throne. In 22:16–19, he holds a completely corrupt court in order to murder Ahimelech the priest, then has the entire priesthood and their families executed at Nob. In 24:21, even after confessing that David will be king, Saul’s only concern is that his own posterity not be wiped out. In 28:7–25, Saul’s motivation for seeking a witch reveals that his autonomy will drive him to the furthest ends of rebellion. And this is just hitting the highlights.
And finally, we find him here, once again concerned only with himself, even unto death. And sure enough is was his landmark examples of autonomous rebellion that the Chronicler later cites as the reason for his death: “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD put him to death” (1 Chron. 10:13–14).
So here lies the great one who was demanded and chosen as a symbol of national greatness and military might. For all of his power and armor, he delivered nothing. He could not even save himself, when it came to it; he could only do the opposite: kill himself. As I look at such a pitiful scene, I am reminded of a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan arrives at the outer regions of creation at a place I like to think of as outer darkness. Milton’s description of that place has always stuck with me.
. . . [W]hen Sin
With vanity had filled the works of men:
Both all things vain, and all who in vain things
Built their fond hopes of Glory or lasting fame,
Or happiness in this or th’ other life;
All who have their reward on Earth, the fruits
Of painful Superstition and blind Zeal,
Naught seeking but the praise of men, here find
Fit retribution, empty as their deeds (Paradise Lost, 3:446–454).
Every power and glory of man and all the deeds produced from them, no matter how vaunted and praised by men, ultimately are total emptiness, and in the end will be confronted with that reality. Those who trust in such vanity will be left with nothing but that emptiness in the end. This is so perfectly illustrated here in the life and death of Saul.
Unfortunately, however, in his case, Saul was not a lone actor. He was the chief covenant head of the civil realm in Israel. He was an expression of the vanity of the entire nation. His suicide was not an isolated case. I was a national suicide.
The Spread of despair
Saul’s suicide started a wave of death. The first ripple was with his armor-bearer. The armor-bearer himself does not seem to have been wounded. He was not quite in the same predicament as Saul. He could have stood and fought, and perhaps survived. But his entire life was invested in Saul. His entire life revolved around protecting the life of Saul. The moment Saul snuffed his wick, the armor-bearer acted as if he had nothing else for which to live, and indeed, that life was no longer worth living. So when he saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him (1 Sam 31:5).
But death and despair spread even more. We learn here that Israel fled and fell slain before the Philistines (31:1). The fact is reiterated to David in the next book (2 Sam. 1:4). But it went further. As soon as the men across the valley and the side of the Jordan River heard of Saul’s death, they also despaired. They were not even defeated in battle; they were so frightened they simply abandoned their homes to the Philistines, who gladly took possession of their cities. The lesson here is that this was the total undoing of Israel’s victories over the Philistines before they had a king! It was in chapter 7 that we read of Samuel leading a great revival and monumental victory, after which “the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” (7:13). But the Israelites immediately fell into fear at that time and demanded a king of Samuel. They got their king, along with a warning from Samuel that “if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king” (12:25). And they did wickedly. And now the “days of Samuel” were over. And now we see the sweeping away of both king and people. Thus the good that was done previously has been undone by the wickedness of the people and their king. Things were now worse than before they had a king.
In retrospect, the dominion maintained by Saul was always a false dominion based upon rebellion against God. Had not God called their demand for a king a rejection of Him, after all? And what had been the ruling passion among these people from that point until now? It was fear, and they could only think to treat fear with force. Thus arose the military state. Thus were their passions for national greatness built upon military might and war lust. And for a short time they had success, but their fear and lust spread the militarized state into a stateside tyranny as well—just as Samuel had predicted. For whatever that system—the Saulite Leviathan—accomplished, we see it all crumble here. The instant its head was crushed, fear lost its great threat of force outwardly and then turned in upon itself once again. And thus what could have been mistaken for success, inheritance, expansion, “Israeli Exceptionalism,” and in general, dominion—was proven to be an utter myth. It was a false dominion built on force and presumption rather than faith and obedience. It was exposed that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword—and societies built on the same premises fare no better.
Thus, much later, the prophet Hosea would recall this very episode as representative of the utter downfall of Israel in general: “Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers—those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath” (Hos. 13:10–11).
The Gospel of the defeat of Saul
The narrative says that the Philistines did not even find the body until the next day when they went to strip what spoils they could from the dead bodies. They found Saul, and when they did they decapitated him, stripped his armor, and then sent the good news throughout the land. From their perspective it was obviously good news, but perhaps not so much for those loyal to Saul. The Hebrew word actually just refers to news or tidings in general, which could be either good or bad. But the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, actually uses the same Greek word used in the New Testament for the good news or gospel: euaggelizo.
And honestly, from a theological perspective, this is not a stretch to see this as good news in general, as tragic as it may have seemed for many of God’s people. It was a covenantal house cleaning judgment, and was clearing the way for the establishment of David and an advance of national righteousness. It was the fulfillment of prophecy and the salvation of the remnant that this dark hour had come. Saul was the manifestation of the wicked one in the nation. Indeed, the fact that his decapitation is recorded here signals that he was of the seed of the enemy. Just as with Eli, just as with Goliath, Saul’s head was crushed—and his death is said to be the work of the God Himself (1 Chron. 10:14).
There is irony in this, too, is there not? Saul who was a head taller, was cut down to size. Now he was no taller than any other man. He who won the hearts of a lustful people with his physical stature, was proven to be no mightier at all, and certainly no security against evil. The very symbol of his power—his lofty head—was taken away.
Further, the vanity of trusting in human devices is once again exposed here. Not only did Saul lose his head, but his armor was stripped from him. What a beautiful if tragic picture of the failure of human means for salvation. Clad with the best and most advanced in the world at the time, no doubt, powerful Saul still fell to the arrows and sought death anyway. All that he trusted in to protect him was stripped from his lifeless body. Remember when David refused to use it against Goliath? Saul wore it to the bitter end, but it did him no good.
For their part, the Philistines preached the gospel of their own gods. They put his armor as a trophy in the temple of their goddess Ashtaroth, and nailed his body up as a trophy of war on the wall of the city of Beth-Shan. The Israelite trust in military might and statism had become an occasion for their enemies to blaspheme. But from whence had it come? Did not Israel specifically say they wanted a king like all the nations? And they got it. And the pagan political theory worked out to the glory of pagan gods. Let this be a note to today’s statists as well: the lust to maintain your politics like the pagan nations will eventually ruin you and turn to the praise of the pagan gods from which it came.
But there is still some loyalty and bravery left in Israel. The text says that valiant men from Jabesh-Gilead (on the east side of the Jordan River) heard what happened to Saul, and they went on a dangerous expedition to recover his body and give it a proper burial. They were successful. They burned the remains and buried them in Jabesh.
The thing to note here, beside the fact that some loyalty of some type and degree remain in part of Israel, is the fact that it came from the men of Jabesh-Gilead. There is no irony in this. During Saul’s early, successful days, his first national exploits involved saving Jabesh-Gilead and avenging them against the Ammonites (11:1–11). But the connection goes back even further. The civil war that erupted in Judges 20 ended with the wicked tribe of Benjamin almost completely extinguished. And the Israelites all vowed not to intermarry with those remaining. But to prevent total annihilation of Benjamin, the Israelites had to find them wives from somewhere. They searched to see if there was any group that had not joined them in the fight against Benjamin. Sure enough, the men of Jabesh-Gilead had not joined in. This angered the Israelites, but also provided a solution to the wife problem. So they attacked Jabesh-Gilead, and then carried away 400 virgins to become wives for the remnant of Benjamin. The story spans Judges 20–21. It is easily understandable that the animosity between Benjamin and the rest of Israel was never quite healed.
The tie-in here is that Saul was the son of Kish, a Benjamite (9:1). There is irony in the fact that when all Israel grew so rebellious that they rejected God in favor of a king like other nations, that God set the despised little tribe—and the tribe with a chip on its shoulder since Judges 21—to rule over the rest of the brethren. It was a slap in the face at that point. Of course, Israel was so lustful and rebellious they did not care. But there is certainly no irony in the devout loyalty of the men of Jabesh-Gilead for the Benjamite regime. They had intermarried just in this generation, and had a common animosity against the people who had attacked them both—the rest of Israel.
This will be a big part of the challenge when David takes over in the next book. He knows he has to win over those loyal to Saul or else there will be a split. One of the first things he does is to bless the men of Jabesh-Gilead for the act recorded here—for their loyalty (2 Sam. 2:4–7). He is trying to reach out to them first thing. A split would ensue anyway, later, but Benjamin will be the only other tribe that remains in the southern kingdom, loyal to David.
1. Judgment upon an ungodly nation is certain
God is ever so patient and loving as to give nations and peoples long space to repent, but He is not longsuffering forever. We see here that the very judgment of which Samuel had warned 40 years earlier now became a reality. Of course, historical sanctions have always been part of God’s dealings with nations, whether in covenant with Him (see Deut. 28–29) or not (consider Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh, Cyrus, Rome, etc.).
From this we must understand that judgment in history is certain. God will not tolerate wickedness from a nation forever. He will give space, but He will bring judgment. We should, therefore, be quick to call for repentance, and we should maintain that call persistently and clearly. That call should ring from every pulpit, and it should be directed toward every man, woman, and child, from the lowliest to the most influential. It should be directed specifically toward our statesmen, elected officials, judges, and prominent leaders. The Sauls of our nation, and all the hyper-nationalistic forces that support Saul’s agendas in our nation, must be called to repentance by a thousand voices from a thousand directions, daily.
And repent of what? Look at Saul’s sins for which he was indicted by God: failing to obey God’s commands and consulting a witch. These are our sins as well: compromise and autonomy. Our nation is infused with them. We refuse to obey God’s commands utterly. We make compromises deemed necessary by the political leaders who continually fail to advance Christian values, yet we are told by their pundits that we cannot win unless we compromise. Win what? More failure? Until Christians repent of this type of besetting sin, judgment is inevitable. The only question is when.
How have we sought a witch? Perhaps not explicitly (although Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, and Mary Todd Lincoln were all rumored (and some reported) to have engaged in séance or other occultism in the White House). But the principle is what matters: seeking revelation through another means than God is to seek another god, as we said. This is idolatry, and it is essentially autonomous self-idolatry, because the individual is the one choosing the source rather than submitting to the Supreme Source. This is to set oneself over God. In short, just as Samuel said that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, so witchcraft is little more than humanism. Once we see how closely all of these sins are intertwined, we realize that the vast march of humanism expressed variously as secularism, Darwinism, Freudianism, atheism, materialism, etc., are but many heads of the same monster—the serpent of human autonomy, defiance of Adam’s Maker, assertion of the Dominion of Creation rather than the Creator. Man would be his own lawmaker, and he will defy the Law of his God if for nothing else but to assert that fact. And every head of that serpent which surfaces in every home, school, church, and statehouse across this land reveals that we have sought a witch, and worse, that we are the witch. And every one of those heads hisses the certainty of the judgment it invites.
All of the parties and supporters trusting in military might to make a nation great partake of the same sin of autonomy. Saul was nothing but the answer to the Israelites’ corrupt prayer to be a military dictatorship. He was the incarnation of their rebellion. They could not trust God’s promises of protection; they thought an army was better protection than God. They did not just trust men more than God, they trusted men and not God. That is humanism. Further, what they really were doing was defying the Word of God, and replacing it with their own dictates. They had become a law unto themselves.
And we are no different. We are a nation of laws, sure, but whose laws? Our thousands of pages of code often defy God’s Law and replace it with the dictates of men. And at the root of these dictates are institutions that defy God’s Law—in the creation of money, distribution of wealth, procedures of justice, nature and preservation of marriage and family, education, and more. Again, this serpent is many-headed. And at the root of all of these corrupt laws and institutions is the same fear and lust that drove Israel to incarnate its sins in Saul’s administration. There is no difference. We defy and reject God just as flagrantly as Israel did then.
And thus we must repent, or else expect inevitable judgment in history. Let us preach repentance and righteousness while we are still given space to do so. But if we do not, let us also not be surprised when we witness our own national suicide.
2. Many choose the lesser of two evils to avoid repentance
We have covered the issue of the “lesser of two evils” previously in this series (see the sermons on chapters 5–6, 11–2, and 13). Almost always we have seen it in a political context, and rightly so. Here we see the spiritual root of it—and that root is the very same autonomous rebellion we just discussed.
We see this very clearly in Saul. He was wounded, and believed he was about to die. He feared the evil of falling into the hands of the Philistines and being made sport of. It would truly have been a nasty end. But was it worse than the sin of suicide? Saul thought so. He provided himself the choice of two evils, and chose what he thought was the lesser of the two—even though it was rank sin. This is a fitting, if tragic, end illustrative of the refusal to repent.
And that is what this is really about: the refusal to repent. This is the last stand of all rebellion—stubbornness. Repentance would be the cure for rebellion, but rebellion says “You cannot make me do it.” Its essence is to assert itself for the sake of being the one who asserts—even unto death and hell. It is the ultimate assertion of one’s autonomy, and it is spiritual suicide.
We much begin to think of our own choices in life along the same lines. Shall we excuse our rebellious sins out of some version of pleading necessity? Shall we justify our fears and lusts by constructing our decision as a choice between necessary evils? Or shall we repent of our sins, and endure what mockery may come? And my how mild our mockery would be, compared to what Saul may have endured. Our choices are mild, and the situations in which we are called to stand on principle are most often mild compared to David’s in general, and in this vignette, Saul’s. We are not shot through with arrows, near death, and fearing to be whipped, to have our eyes gouged out, to endure digital amputation, to be paraded through streets enchained behind horses, or scores of other horrendous tortures. Nothing like it. We fear not to be invited to rich dinner parties and banquets with big-name keynote speakers. We fear losing prominence among the circles of influence we wish to penetrate, and in which we desire to be seen and included and thought of as prominent ourselves. For these absolute trifles in comparison, we are willing to replace God’s Word with man’s, and to compromise our professed principles. We sell out over things nowhere near as dire as Saul did here. Dare we say that we are not only no better than Saul, but, at least in this one instance in which he held out so long, that we do not even compare? For we sell out much sooner, for much less, and under far less pressure.
And may I just speculate for a moment? Considering that the Philistines never even found Saul’s dead body until the next day. Given this space of time, is it possible he could actually have escaped to safety? Of course we know that God had decreed his death in judgment, so his is purely a hypothetical. But what if Saul had just an ounce of repentance in him throughout his life? Suppose it was not actually too late. Would such a man, even badly wounded, have entertained the hope of escape, and taken his chances—even if he thought he could have died in the process—before committing suicide? Had he done so, given the space of time afforded him, Saul may likely have lived.
What makes us think, therefore, that our own perceived predicaments are not more the imaginations of our brains? And that, built on our own fears and sins? How many times have we, then, deceived ourselves and others into an alleged choice between evils when in reality a path of faithfulness lay open yet? And how do understand this, simply? It is simply that we prefer our sin to repentance. We prefer our sin to faithfulness. Our sins promise comfort. Our sins promise safety and protection. Our sins promise community and a prominent place in it. Our sins promise us success in business and politics. Our sins promise dominion in the earth. In short, our sins promise us all the same things God promises us if we obey. And we too often trust in the promises of sin instead of the promises of God. The sad truth is that, like Saul, many people today would prefer to choose hell rather than repentance, if the choice came to it. And many Christians in many areas of life live this way, too. They would rather live in sin than repent, and their rebellion drives them further from repentance the longer they embrace it.
Let us learn this truth, and then return to application number one: repent while there is still time, and preach repentance and faithfulness throughout the land.
 Saul reigned for 40 years, according to Acts 13:21.