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The battle of Mt Gilboa 31:1-6
God had announced that Saul would deliver His people from the hand of the Philistines (1 Samuel 9:16). However, Saul frustrated God’s purpose by not following the Lord faithfully. Consequently the Philistines got the better of Saul and his soldiers (cf. Joshua 1:7-9). This battle took place in 1011 B.C., the last year of Saul’s reign. Three other important battles took place nearby in the Jezreel Valley: Deborah and Barak’s defeat of Sisera (Judges 4:15; Judges 5:21), Gideon’s victory over the Midianites (Judges 7), and Pharaoh Neco’s killing of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:29). The name of God does not appear in this chapter, perhaps suggesting that He had now given up Saul to the consequences of his apostasy (cf. Romans 1).
Jonathan, a faithful son and subject of the king, followed his father into battle. The death of this godly man because of his father’s sins seems unfair as well as tragic, but God permitted it. David would replace Saul on the throne. Another son of Saul, Ish-bosheth, also known as Eshbaal, must not have been present in the battle (cf. 2 Samuel 2:8; 2 Samuel 2:10; 2 Samuel 2:12; 2 Samuel 3:8; 2 Samuel 3:14-15; 2 Samuel 4:5; 2 Samuel 4:8; 2 Samuel 4:12; 1 Chronicles 8:33).
David had been Saul’s armor-bearer before he had to flee from Saul’s presence (1 Samuel 16:21). Saul, probably fearing that the Philistines would torture and abuse him, [Note: McCarter, p. 443.] asked his armor-bearer to kill him, but the young man refused to do so, as David had when he had opportunity. Why this armor-bearer feared to kill Saul is unclear. Perhaps he feared the disgrace that would have hounded him, or even death, for slaying the king. Or perhaps, like David, he feared God and so would not kill the Lord’s anointed. This insubordination, which had characterized Saul’s conduct before Yahweh, led Saul to take his own life. The Bible records three other suicides: Ahithophel’s (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri’s (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas’ (Matthew 27:5).
"Isn’t it interesting, he’s very concerned about his image with the enemy but shows little concern for his relationship with God whom he is about to meet?" [Note: Swindoll, p. 122.]
Eli, too, died as a result of a battle with the Philistines. Some of his sons also died (1 Samuel 4:17). Eli had served as Israel’s high priest unfaithfully for 40 years when he died (1 Samuel 4:18), and Saul had served as her king for about 40 years when he died (1 Samuel 13:1). Eli fell off his seat and died (1 Samuel 4:18), but Saul fell on his sword and died. [Note: Youngblood, "1, 2 Samuel," pp. 798-99.] Both men were disappointments to God and His people.
Saul’s armor-bearer also committed suicide in battle, probably because if he had outlived the one whom he should have protected with his life, he could have been executed for dereliction of duty. The soldiers who went into battle with Saul also perished. The king not only died, but he took many of his own men down with him.
The death of Saul ch. 31
The scene shifts back to Mt. Gilboa in the North and Saul. Saul’s battle with the Philistines in this chapter may have been simultaneous with David’s battle against the Amalekites in the previous one.
"Chapters 30 and 31 gain in poignancy and power if we regard their events as simultaneous. In the far south, David is anxious about his own and about spoil, while in the far north Saul and the Israelite army perish. . . . While David smites (hikkah) [’fought,’ 1 Samuel 30:17] the Amalekites, and they flee (nus) [1 Samuel 30:17], the Philistines smite (hikkah) [’killed,’ 1 Samuel 31:2] Saul and his sons, and Israel flees (nus) [1 Samuel 31:1; 1 Samuel 31:7]." [Note: Miscall, pp. 181-82.]
The account of Saul’s death here differs from the one that the Amalekite messenger gave David later, which the writer recorded in 2 Samuel 1. This one is quite clearly the factual one (cf. 1 Chronicles 10). [Note: See Gordon, I & II Samuel . . ., p. 202.]
The aftermath of the battle 31:7-13
The other Israelite soldiers retreated when they heard that Saul and his sons had died. This left towns in the region open for Philistine seizure. Instead of driving the native inhabitants out of the land, Saul had made it possible for them to drive the Israelites out and to reestablish themselves in Galilee (cf. Joshua 1:2-9).
The Philistines cut off Saul’s head, as David had earlier cut off the head of Goliath, the Philistine champion (1 Samuel 17:51). They hung it as a trophy in the temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:10). They also circulated Saul’s weapons and sent them on a tour of Philistine pagan temples before finally depositing them in the temple of Ashtaroth, their chief female deity. David had taken Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, and had put his weapons in his own tent, at least temporarily (1 Samuel 17:54). The giant’s sword was in the tabernacle at Nob when David went there (1 Samuel 21:9). This book began with scenes from God’s temple, but it ends with scenes in the temples of Israel’s pagan enemies. David’s faith had brought Israel success, but Saul’s disobedience had lost it.
The Philistines fastened Saul’s decapitated corpse on the wall of their nearby town of Beth-shan. In the ancient Near East the treatment of a corpse was very significant. If people, even enemies, honored a person, they treated his corpse with care and gave it an honorable burial, but if they did not respect him, they treated his dead body with contempt. The Philistines showed great disrespect for Saul by hanging his dead body on the wall of Beth-shan. This town stood at the east end of the Jezreel Valley, near where the battle had taken place. Contrast their respect for David in chapter 29.
However, the men of Jabesh-gilead rescued Saul’s corpse from further humiliation, burned it, probably because the Philistines had abused it, and perhaps to prevent disease, [Note: Baldwin, p. 171.] and buried the remaining bones. Jabesh-gilead lay about 13 miles east-southeast of Beth-shan. Saul had earlier rescued Jabesh-gilead from the Ammonites (ch. 11). Some of its inhabitants may have been Saul’s blood relatives. [Note: See my comments on 11:6-11.] The tamarisk tree under which the people buried Saul was very different from a royal tomb, but that kind of tree was a symbol of life since it was an evergreen. The writer may have wanted us to remember that earlier Saul had played the fool under another tamarisk in Gibeah (cf. 1 Samuel 22:6). Later, David honored Saul and Jonathan by digging up their bones and burying them more appropriately in their family tomb (2 Samuel 21:12-14). The seven-day fast also honored Saul but was much less than the honors granted other great leaders of Israel (cf. Numbers 20:29; Deuteronomy 34:8). The writer evidently recorded all these details to show the ignominy in which Saul died because he departed from the Lord.
This is how the life of Israel’s first king, the man after the Israelites’ own heart, ended (cf. 1 Chronicles 10:13-14; Hosea 13:11). He was full of promise at his anointing, having many natural qualities that could have contributed to a successful reign. He also possessed the Holy Spirit’s enablement after his anointing. Unfortunately he did not become a source of blessing to Israel and the world, nor did God bless him personally. Instead he became a curse to Israel, the world, and himself. He did so because he failed to acknowledge Yahweh as the true king of Israel and because he failed to view himself as Yahweh’s servant. His life teaches us that the key to blessing or cursing is one’s trust in, and obedience to, God.
"At the end . . . much remains to praise, much to blame, and much to wonder at." [Note: R. B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy, p. 32.]
Note the differences between Saul’s death and Jesus Christ’s. Jesus was consistently trusting and obedient to His Father’s will. He laid down His life as a sacrifice for others rather than taking it Himself. He spent the night before His death in prayer to His Father, whereas Saul spent his last night with a medium. Jesus Christ blessed many through His death, even the whole human race, but Saul brought blessing to others through his death only because it cleared the way for someone better.
Chapters 21-31 contrast the rise of David and the fall of Saul. The reason for both was clearly the extent of their commitment to Yahweh. We can see their commitment in their responses to His revealed will.
The writer also developed the motif of the proper response to the Lord’s anointed in this part of the book. David’s respect for the priests and His seeking of God’s will through them shows the proper attitude. Saul on the other hand slaughtered them, showing that he no longer cared about the worship of Yahweh, and sought guidance from the spiritual underworld. God spared people who acknowledged David as His anointed, and they became sources of fertility. Those who opposed David suffered God’s curse and died.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany