10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

1 Samuel 31

Verse 4

1 Samuel 31:4

Saul took a sword and fell upon it.

The death of Saul

Saul’s life is a tragedy, and his death is the closing scene. Circumstances close round him, and press him to his doom. These circumstances know no remorse. They never pause for pity. The last foe that Saul meets is himself. His death was neither more nor less than suicide; the death of all deaths the most loathsome and despised of men; of all deaths the only one that men call cowardly. Yet to this Saul came, as if he had not been the anointed of the Lord, as if he never had been the glory of God’s people Israel. The whole of the preceding history had a sound in it portentous of change and death. And Saul himself, better than any other man, was aware that his end was near; and he went on to that end in a most pitiable plight; a hero without a hero’s hope. There is a singular fitness in the chapter which closes this life of Saul. There is no sentimental dallying with the tragic facts. The battle was set, and from the first, the Philistines did the fighting. We need not dwell on the features of this tragedy. It was a great historical event, meaning much to the nation which saw its first king thus sadly fall. It was the end of Saul’s kingdom: his sons and all his family, and, with them, all his hopes, died with him that night on Mount Gilboa. And it is still a conspicuous moral, as well as historical, event, on which we may well pause to look across the ages. Saul brought down thousands with him when he fell, but he had been lowering the tone of the spiritual nation almost from the time when he began his reign. The people had, indeed, got in him what they asked for--a king like unto their neighbours. And as he had been in his life in the land, so was he when he died at Gilboa. For “there was the shield of the mighty vilely cast away--the shield of Saul--as of one not anointed of the Lord.” When we look at this life in its most general, human aspects, it is hard to escape the question: “Why did God bring Saul into all these circumstances of trial where he so ignobly failed and fell? Would it not have been better for Saul never to have been called from his father’s plough?” There is something more serious by far than to be a king; it, is more serious to be a man. If mere safety and immunity from trial and danger are all that are to be desired by us, we must needs rank ourselves with the irrational creation. But when we are made men we are called with a high calling. We have set before us an immortal destiny, either to work that out or wreck it away. We are all on our trial. The highest issues of human life are brought out by the greatness and the strength of our trials. So was it with Saul. His trial began with his great opportunity. The highness of his calling measures the deepness of his falling. There are three points which indicate the departure of Saul from the path of peace and duty.

1. He had not long reigned until he began to separate himself from good men in the land. He was soon separated from Samuel, the best, the noblest, the representative good man of the time he was soon separate from David, the man of the future, the man after God’s own heart, and who desired to do only God’s will. He was soon cruel and fierce in his wrath, slaying one by one the priests of the Lord.

2. Then we find that he was separate from God. He prayed to God, and God gave him no answer. He asked in vain for God’s guidance, and then called in vain for the dead Samuel.

3. Last of all, Saul got separated from himself; from his own best nature. There was a great chasm in his nature, between his evil and his controlling, better self; and thus he was left to the wreck and ruin which his own worst nature prompted. Such is the spiritual history of him whose tragic life we have now read to its close. (Armstrong Black.)


Our Creator, it is said, has given us a general desire to obtain good, and avoid evil; why may we not obey this impulse? We leave a kingdom, or a society, of which we do not approve; we avoid bodily pain by all the means which we can invent; why may we not cease to live, when life becomes a greater evil, than a good? Because, in avoiding pain, or in procuring pleasure, we are always to consider the good of others, as well as our own. Poverty is an evil, but we may not rob to avoid it; power is a good, but it is not justifiable to obtain it by violence or deceit; we have only a right to consult our own good within certain boundaries, and after such a manner that we do not diminish the good of others: Every evil incapable of such limited remedy, it is our duty to bear; and if the general idea that we have a right to procure voluntary death to ourselves, be pregnant with infinite mischief to the interests of religion, and morality, it is our duty to live, as much as it is our duty to do anything else for the same reason; a single instance of suicide may be of little consequence; nor is a single instance of robbery of much; but we judge of single actions, by the probability there is of their becoming frequent, and by the effects they produce, when they are frequent.

1. Suicide, is as unfavourable to human talents, and resources, as it is to human virtues; we should never have dreamt of the latent power, and energy of our nature, but for the struggle of great minds with great afflictions, nor known the limits of ourselves, nor man’s dominion over fortune: What would the world now have been, if it had always been said, because the archers smite me sore, and the battle goeth against me, I will die? Alas! man has gained all his joy by his pains; misery, hunger, and nakedness, have been his teachers, and goaded him on to the glories of civilised life; take from him his unyielding spirit, and if he had lived at all, he would have lived the most suffering creature of the forest.

2. Suicide has been called magnanimity; but what is magnanimity? A patient endurance of evil, to effect a proposed good; and when considering the strange mutability of human affairs, are we to consider this endurance as useless, or when should hope terminate but with life? To linger out year after year, unbroken in spirit, unchanged in purpose, is doubtless, a less imposing destiny than public, and pompous suicide; but if to be, is more commendable, than to seem to be; if we love the virtue, better than the name, then is it true magnanimity to extract wisdom from misery, and doctrine from shame; to call day, and night upon God; to keep the mind’s eye sternly riveted on its object through failure, and through suffering; through evil report, and through good report; and to make the bed of death the only grave of human hope; but at the moment when Christianity warns you that your present adversity may be a trial from God; when experience teaches that great qualities come in arduous situations; when piety stimulates you to show the hidden vigour, the inexhaustible resources, the beautiful capacities of that soul, which God has exempted from the destruction which surrounds it; at that moment, the law of self-murder gives you, for your resource, ignominious death, frightful disobedience, and never-ending torments.

3. It may be imagined that suicide is a crime of rare occurrence, but we must not so much overrate our love of life, when there is hardly a passion so weak, which cannot at times, overcome it; many fling away life from ambition, many from vanity, many from restlessness, many from fear, many from almost every motive; nature has made death terrible, but nature has made those evils terrible, from the dread of which we seek death; nature has made resentment terrible, infamy terrible, want terrible, hunger terrible; every first principle of our nature alternately conquers and is conquered; the passion that is a despot in one mind, is a slave in the other; we know nothing of their relative force.

4. It is hardly possible be conceive this crime, committed by anyone who has not confounded his common notions of right and wrong by some previous sophistry, and cheated himself into a temporary scepticism; but who would trust to the reasoning of such a moment in such a state of the passions, when the probability of error is so great, and the punishment so immeasurable? Men should determine, even upon important human actions, with coolness, and unimpeded thought; much less, then, is a rash and disturbed hour enough for eternity.

5. It has often been asked, if self-murder is forbidden by the Christian religion; but those who ask this question forget, that Christianity is not a code of laws, but a set of principles from which particular laws must frequently be inferred; it is not sufficient to say, there is no precise, and positive law, naming, and forbidding self-murder; there is no law of the gospel, which forbids the subject to destroy his ruler; but there is a law, which says, fear, and obey him; there is no law which prevents me from slaying my parent; but there is a law which says, love, and honour them; “be meek, says our Saviour;” “be long suffering; abide patiently to the last; submit to the chastening hand of God,” and let us never forget, that the fifth, and greatest gospel is the life of Christ; that he acted for us, as well as taught, that in the deserts of Judea, in the hall of Pilate, on the supreme cross, his patience shows us, that evil is to be endured, and his prayers point out to us, how alone it can be mitigated. (Sidney Smith, M. A.)

Lessons from a suicide

There is always something solemn in doing things which, when done, cannot be undone--in taking steps which, when taken once, can never be recalled. We sign our contracts with a trembling hand; and enter into those bonds which least of all we desire to break, with a solemnity which arises from the thought that, once entered upon, we cannot recede. The act of suicide affords the most decisive evidence of the extensive delusion which men can practise on themselves, and of the blinding power which they permit the tempter to exercise over them, when, under the idea of relief and escape, they involve themselves in a deeper calamity, and in order to effect an oblivion of present suffering, they grasp the cup of eternal woe, and put it to their lips. “From what shall I escape?” is but one-half of the question--“Into what shall I bring myself?” is the still more momentous portion of the inquiry.

1. Looking at the circumstances of Saul’s death in their connection with the history of the people over whom he reigned, it is impossible not to perceive that they were fraught with instruction to the nation, with lessons valuable though humiliating. They reiterate with deeper emphasis the truth--that when men are determined to have their own way--when they will not listen to heavenly suggestions, to Divine remonstrances--and when they think that they can manage better for themselves than God can manage for them, there is but one way of convincing them of their error. They must be allowed to take the problem of their peace and happiness into their own hands, to attempt to work it out in their own fashion, and then to reap the bitter results of failure, which in such a case are inevitable. Israel worked out their own problem, and they brought it to this issue--“And the men of Israel flee from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa,” etc. And thus will it ever be, where men expect to reap more from their own theories than from God’s fixed laws and plans.

2. We may take, as a second suggestion from the spectacle before us, the thought--How dreadful it is for a man to be in trouble without God to sustain and support him. The waves and billows were indeed going over Saul. We see here the acting out of one of those principles which regulate the Divine dealings with men If they seek Him, He will be found of them; if they forsake Him, He will cast them off foreverse Fearful as is the lesson taught us by the self-murder of Saul, it is consolatory to know that no one need be in trouble without God. Precious promises point out the way in which we may be delivered from any such fear.

3. We see, in Saul’s case, that there is no surer sign that a man is on the high road to ruin than that his heart is hardened against Divine warnings. Quickly, one after another, came solemn calls to the king of Israel to humble himself at last before God. We wait; and the thought rushes into our heart, “He will break down at last; he will stand out no longer. But it did not. And then it was seen that the heart which can stand out against solemn calls, ruin will be the result.” “He that being often reproved,” etc. It is a grievous miscalculation, moreover, which men make, when, conscious that life is passing on in the neglect of God and of duty, they reckon within themselves upon a certain power which they imagine the approach of death will have to awaken their attention to religious duties, and to bring with it the disposition to return to God in repentance and prayer.

4. As we compare the conclusion of this history with its commencement, we cannot but discover an impressive lesson as to the influence of external circumstances upon personal character. As Saul rose in his social position, he sunk in his moral condition. It is dangerous to keep an idol for ourselves; it is not less perilous to become the idol of others. Never was there a man more frequently instructed in the lesson of entire dependence upon God. (J. A. Miller.)

Verse 6

1 Samuel 31:6

So Saul died and his three sons.

Death of Saul and Jonathan

There is a proverb of the ancients, “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Or, to express the same idea in the language of the Bible, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” This was the truth brought out so forcibly in the last days, and especially in this death scene, of Saul.

1. Saul was what the Bible calls a “reprobate.” By that we do not mean that he was a man hurried forward to his doom by a blind fate, or lashed to such a doom against his will by the scourge of relentless furies. There is no such case in all the Bible. Yes, Saul was a sinner, and a persistent sinner--a sinner who sinned against light and knowledge, against providence and grace, against mercy and judgment. “God gave him over to strong delusions, to believe a lie.” God will not force men to obey him--will not compel them to repent when they have done wrong.

2. God’s retributions are slow but sure. It had been a long time since Saul committed that first grievous offence against God. There were years of apparent peace and prosperity, when God seemed to have forgotten his old curse, and when Saul might have thought that God had changed his mind and purpose.

3. To forsake God is to be lost. That was the fatal turning point in Saul’s history, both as a man and as the first king of Israel. There was everything to make him loyal to God. It was not the want of knowledge or the want of counsel that led him to stumble. It was a want of reverence for God as “King of kings.” It was a want of will to do God’s will, and a desire to follow the bent of his own heart in spite of all that God told him was right and wrong. So he forsook God. And what could God do, as a lover of truth and a lover of Israel, but forsake him. (T. W. Hooper, D. D.)

The dead march of Saul

1.We begin with this: “Sin, when it is finished, bringing forth death.” The career of the first monarch Israel ever had is now actually completed: his life is a failure; the wrong beginning has reached the fetal end. The parallel has more than once been drawn between the rejected Saul and the Roman Brutus at Philippi. They seem to have had a warning in very similar terms the night before they died. And the terrible destruction of their respective forces, the entire rout and ruin of their cause, worked the same maddening result. Each fell on his own sword, and so sealed his guilt with suicide. One thinks of the story which naturalists tell concerning the scorpion, which, girded by the circle of fire, coils up on itself into narrower and narrower folds, till, when it can endure the heat no longer, it turns its deadly venom against itself and buries the sting of destruction in its own brain. Saul knew he must die before nightfall that day; it was not necessary he should let himself be tortured.

2. So there is a second text of God’s Word illustrated here in the incident: “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.” The lines and links of connection with bind us to our fellow men are often very subtle, and sometimes unexpected; but they are certainly always very strong. We do not know that Saul cared much about others’ interests, but his guilt was visited on many innocent, souls. By a tradition of the Rabbins we are told that the armour bearer mentioned here was named Doeg, and the tale adds that both of these men were slain by the same weapon, that was indeed the one with which the Lord’s servants had been massacred at Nob.

3. Notice, therefore, closely in this connection that another of the Bible texts phrases for us a new lesson: “One sinner destroyeth much good.” There was more in this tremendous catastrophe at Gilboa than an individual wreck. Great public interests were shaken almost as if the nation had been rocked by the force of an earthquake. Saul reaped the wind before he died, and when he died too; but it was his people that, with sickles of humiliation and loss and shame unutterable, reaped the whirlwind in his stead.

4. Happily there is another side even to this. We choose again from the utterances of inspiration, and we read, “The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment.” It has been noticeable in human history that the Almighty deals somewhat surprisingly with remnants; even in great devastations there is often left a seed that tries to serve him and retrieve the disasters. It does our hearts good just now to learn that Jabesh-Gilead was aroused: somebody after all was alive in the land. A good turn often comes back again. Years before this Saul had saved the inhabitants of that town from losing their eyes at the hands of some brutal enemies; now they sent a faithful band to take reverently down from the spikes the bodies of the royal victims and give them decent burial at last. It is wiser always to side with the Lord of hosts, no matter how discouraging the present prospect may be.

5. Once more, we find an illustration also here of the text that has grown so familiar in our times: “In the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.”

(1) He lost his chance through his sinning against God.

(2) He lost his chance: but ours remains to us yet; and this is of vast importance and demands our notice as living men. While the hours linger salvation is possible anyone who will come with patience seeking it, and even a great bad record may be blotted from the book of God’s remembrance by the blood of Christ. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)

Saul’s character and end

The character of Saul.

1. Proud preference of his own will to God’s, carried out boldly in the life; deadly jealousy, that coloured and distorted his view of things, determined the special mould of his character and destiny, and threw over both deep shades of darkness; cruelty, that was causeless as against an innocent man, unnatural as against a son-in-law, sacrilegious, in smiting without scruple a whole city of priests with their families; impiety, that dared to stand up against God. Potentially the tyrant lurked in the king, the monster in the man. Circumstances alone would not, could not, make him such as he became. They helped to mould and colour his character, and gave it its peculiarity of aspect. But the regulating power lay within. From the same circumstances a different character would have been fabricated by a different disposition. Does not the same sunlight nourish Hemlock and All-heal, the Nettle and the Lily, the Thistle and the foodful Grain? Do not all flowers drink their own colours from the same flood of sunbeams? Even so, the plastic power of evil within employed for deadly harm the very circumstance which another would have turned to good and holy purposes.

2. His careless naturalism of heart. Let us call it by its Scripture name: “carnal mindedness.” This was the warp on which were woven all the glaring designs of his life. His heart was never broken by a sense of sin, or melted with the love of God, or touched by the marvellous grace that shone in the economy of type and shadow.

The moral purposes of his reign.

1. Punitive. His whole reign was a judgment. Disaffection, despondency, internal strife, and enfeebled power, were but different aspects of the same black cloud. It was throughout a ministry of retribution.

2. Disciplinary. These terrible years had a forward as well as a backward look. The harvest of the past they were also the seed time of the future.

(1) The Divine holiness was solemnly held forth. Every new infliction of judgment was a new demonstration of God’s hatred of sin.

(2) Conviction of sin. This would be the very result of an impression of Divine purity. The inference in a quickened conscience, would be immediate and pressing. Instinctively the contrast would be felt. The conviction of impurity would be the dark dreadful shadow of Divine intolerance of it.

(3) Turning to God again. Left, for this dark series of years, to follow their own ways, with a king as they desired and such as hey would have chosen, it was proved to them how foolish they were to separate themselves in the smallest measure from the God whose love had guarded them. They could not direct their own steps. It was suicidal weakness to think of walking alone. Their weary hearts looked wistfully back from the gloom that had settled on the land to that happier sunshine which now seemed gleaming on those vanished years of closer allegiance to God.

3. Instructive.

(1) The meeting of two lines of providential agency in the accomplishment of a certain intended result--a principle which finds frequent illustration in the early history of the New Testament Church, as when Simeon and the Infant Saviour, Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Ananias, from different points, were borne divinely to a meeting.

(2) The judicial arranging of events and circumstances so as to make the sources of perplexity, temptation, and ruin, to the wilful soul--an awful truth which has been repeating itself in actual life ever since Pharaoh, in his infatuation, hastened after Israel because “the wilderness had shut them in.” But these truths, and many like them, were developed by particular occurrences in the life of Saul. When that life is looked at as a whole, it yields most useful lessons for men of every age.

1. No change of circumstance can slacken God’s hold of His creatures. Convincing proof of this might have been given by a character and history directly the opposite of Saul’s. But doubly impressive is the demonstration made by a life like his.

2. No human institution can of itself bring real blessings to a people. The Hebrews fondly dreamed that royalty would bring with it healing for all social ills. In their case the dream was not only baseless, but signally dishonouring to God. In every case it is really so. The folly of it is written conspicuously on all history. It is taught clearly by our common sense. With multitudes, a bright vision of happiness seems hovering over some great political amelioration yet to come. And it is to be feared that the noble instinct of our nature, which craves for true enjoyment, is bidden fill itself here. Deluded multitudes, to set down an immortal nature to these husks of the prodigal! True happiness is a heavenly gift. It is madness to seek it growing among the political improvements or social amenities of earth.

3. No combination of outward advantages can save or sanctify the soul of man. We cannot well conceive a human being surrounded by greater and more powerful means of improvement than was the first king of Israel.

4. There is in human nature a tendency to growth in evil. Here, again, Saul stands for the race. And in him this growth is terribly conspicuous. The modest man has come to stand without shame in the light of a public exposure; and he who had been so winningly regardful of the life of rebels now pants for the blood of the righteous, and barbarously sacrifices to the Moloch of his passion the whole innocent population of a city. Keeping pace with the monstrous growth of evil, and probably accounting for it, we observe in him the gradual consolidation of infernal agency. The human nature refused to admit its full operation all at once. At first the dark influence came in pulses over him, like the sullen ripples of the sea of death on a boat’s resisting sides. But soon that influence gained so thorough a mastery that all sounds of resistance ceased. With terrible facility the infernal power abated the reluctancy of his nature, and at last identified itself so completely with him that all trace of a struggle vanished, and the occasional impulses of its first contact changed eventually to a steady and uniform influence. It would be comforting to believe that this appalling progressiveness was peculiar to Saul. But this consolation we dare not take. While differing from him in the line of descent, and in the circumstances, enormity, and visible effects of our growth in evil, that growth itself is beyond question. The heart gravitates to sin. A malign influence has breathed upon our race. As surely as the body of the newborn babe tends earthwards unsupported, its moral nature tends to corruption. Deeper and deeper it sinks into sin. Habit adds new strength to nature. Surrounding temptations hasten the speed of the soul’s departure from God and holiness. How dreadful this downward pressure! What miracle has preserved the world from perishing by the excess of its own vices? A kindly Providence has done it. (P. Richardson, B. A.)

Verse 8

1 Samuel 31:8

The Philistines came to strip the slain.

After the battle

Is there any sadder sight than a battlefield after the guns have stopped firing? A similar scene is described in our text. Before I get through today, I will show you that the same process is going on all the world over, and every day, and that when men have fallen, Satan and the world, so far from pitying them or helping them, go to work remorselessly to take what little there is left, thus stripping the slain. There are tens of thousands of young men every year coming from the country to our great cities. They come with brave hearts and grand expectations. But our young man has a fine position in a dry-goods store. The month is overse He gets his wages. He is not accustomed to have so much money belonging to himself. He is a little excited, and does not know exactly what to do with it, and he spends it in some places where he ought not. Soon there come up new companions and acquaintances from the barrooms and the saloons of the city. Soon that young man begins to waver in the battle of temptation, and soon his soul goes down. In a few months, or few years, he has fallen. He is morally dead. Why do the low fellows of the city now stick to him so closely? Is it to help him back to a moral and spiritual life? Oh, no! I will tell you why they stay; they are Philistines stripping the slain. The point I want to make is this: Sin is hard, cruel, and merciless. Instead of helping a man up, it helps him down; it will come and steal your sword and helmet and shield, leaving you to the jackal and the crow. But the world and Satan do not do all their work with the outcast and abandoned. A respectable impenitent man comes to die. He could not get up if the house was on fire. What does Satan do for such a man? Wily, he fetches up all the inapt, disagreeable and harrowing things in his life. He says: “Do you remember those chances you had for heaven, and missed them? Do you remember all those lapses in conduct?” And then he takes all the past and empties it on that death bed, as the mail bags are emptied on the post office floor. The man is sick. He cannot get away from them. Come, now, I will tear off from you the last rag of expectation. I will rend away from your soul the last hope. I will leave you bare for the beating of the storm. It is my business to strip the slain. Sin is a luxury now; it is exhilaration now; it is victory now. But after a while it is collision; it is defeat; it is extermination; it is jackalism; it is robbing the dead; it is stripping the slain. Give it up today--give it up! (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "1 Samuel 31". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.