1 Samuel 31 – The Death of Saul and His Sons
A. King Saul and his sons die in battle.
1. (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. Now the Philistines fought against Israel: The Philistines attacked deep into Israelite 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 fear to the Lord Saul made things worse by seeking God’s voice through a spirit medium. Strangely, God did speak to Saul, but He spoke words of judgment 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 join 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 Israelite army camp (1 Samuel 28:4), meaning that the battle turned so badly for Israel that they were in full retreat back to their own camp.
2. (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 were affected in the judgment of God against their father Saul. The brave and worthy Jonathan died as we might expect him to – loyally fighting for his God, his country, and his father the king to the very end.
b. Saul’s sons: 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. 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. (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 armor bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.” But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him. So Saul, his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men died together that same day.
a. The battle became fierce against Saul: Saul, struck by many arrows and severely wounded, knew the battle was completely lost. He pleaded with his armor bearer to kill him, and when he would not, Saul killed himself (Saul took a sword and fell on it).
i. 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 armour bearer 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.”
b. All his men died together that same day: As sad as anything was 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 did not seem to prepare his soul to meet God in any way.
i. At the end of his life Saul became so hardened to 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 assumption because repentance is a gift from God and if it is here today it should be received today.
ii. “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. When his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead: In 2 Samuel 1:4-10, an Amalekite came to David with the report that Saul had died in battle and that he 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. (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 had cut Israel in half, drawing a line from west to east. The rest of the nation was ripe for total conquest by the Philistines.
b. The men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead: This was a great defeat. 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. Saul’s sin, hardened rebellion, and eventual ruin affected far more people than himself and even his immediate family. It literally endangered the entire people of Israel.
ii. 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 presents 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. (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. To proclaim it in the temple of their idols and among the people: Saul’s tragic death gave an opportunity for the enemies of the Lord to disgrace His name. Saul’s death was used to glorify pagan gods and to mock the living God.
b. They fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan: This was the ultimate insult against Saul. In that culture, to have your dead body treated this way was considered a fate worse than death itself.
i. 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. (11-13) The 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 had 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 from 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: These valiant men are also recognized for their gratitude. Many years before Saul delivered their city from the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-11), and they repaid 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).
i. 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 1:19-27). In spite of all that Saul did against David, David spoke well of Saul after his death.
ii. 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 after God’s own heart. Despite his sin, David never followed in the same tragic footsteps as King Saul.