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Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 31 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/1/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 31
“Lest These Uncircumcised Men Come and Thrust Me Through and Abuse Me”
God’s promises do not fail. God had promised Saul that his kingdom would not continue; that God had rejected him as king and was giving the kingdom to a neighbor (cf. 1 Sam 13, 15). God also had anointed David promising that he would be this next king (cf. 1 Sam 16, 2 Sam 3:9-10). And I’ll mention another promise of God, from long before this. God had promised Abraham in Genesis 12 that in Abraham and in his offspring, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Well, these three promises continue to be worked out in today’s passage. Indeed, God’s promises never fail.
Let’s begin then today to see Saul’s destruction. We are reminded in verse 1 of that huge battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. This was the battle that’s been talked about since chapter 28. But now the battle finally happens. And it’s in this battle that King Saul dies. Look at verse 3. There we see that Saul gets severely wounded. When this happens, he asks his armor bearer to kill him. In other words, Saul is essentially asking for a mercy killing, a sort of assisted suicide. We see why in verse 4. Saul says, “lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.” In other words, Saul doesn’t think he’s going to escape here, wounded like this. He’s instead very afraid that he’ll be captured in this condition. Not only does he not seem to want to give the Philistines the pleasure of killing him, but he doesn’t want them to abuse him either. I think back to the book of Judges with Samson, for example, how when Samson was captured by the Philistines they gouged out his eyes and would mock him and shamefully treat him. And so Saul doesn’t want that to happen. But of course, that doesn’t seem like the most noble response by Saul. The only similar event like this before in Israel’s history is back again during the time of the judges, where the evil Abimelech had for a time made himself a king over Israel. And when his end was finally at hand, he too called for his armor-bearer to thrust him through. Abimelech is painted as very evil in the book of judges, and so for Saul to look like him here was surely not a good thing. In other words, Saul’s wanting to get such a mercy killing doesn’t seem too commendable.
Well Abimelech’s armor-bearer obliged his request for a mercy killing, but Saul’s armor-bearer would not. I don’t think we could say that this was because Saul’s armor-bearer wasn’t loyal. No, because in verse 4, after Saul and his sons are all dead, the armor-bearer takes his own life. They all die together. And similarly, I don’t think we can say that reason the armor-bearer wouldn’t take Saul’s life was because he didn’t believe in suicide, given the fact that he then goes and commits suicide himself. We do see an explanation given for the armor-bearer in verse 3. It says that he was greatly afraid. I think the idea here is that he was greatly afraid to strike out against Saul. I think this probably is related to the concern that David has had in this regard. David thought it would be wrong to strike the Lord’s Anointed. I think probably this armor-bearer had a similar commendable understanding of this office to which God had originally appointed Saul. He was willing to die with Saul, but not to strike out and kill Saul, even in a so-called mercy killing. But my point here is not really to reflect on the armor-bearer, but to show him as a foil to Saul. The loyal armor-bearer’s unwillingness to do this, just again shows that Saul surely shouldn’t have requested it in the first place.
But stepping back, the bigger picture here is that Saul is finally at his end. God’s promise to take away the kingdom from Saul has come to pass. His past sin has been haunting him for some time. Saul’s wickedness was again confirmed most recently when he went to the witch at Endor. And there at that visit to the witch we learned that he would die in this specific battle. And he did. And so the verdict on Saul was given by God, and it has come to pass here. I am remembering then what David said a few chapters back. When his men wanted him to take the opportunity he had to kill Saul, he told them that he shouldn’t do that against the Lord’s anointed. But he assured them that surely God would take care of Saul, one way or another. And here that has happened. I’m also similarly reminded of how we saw that with Nabal. After Nabal had offended David, God showed David that he didn’t have to avenge himself; that God would avenge David himself. God did that, striking Nabal dead. That surely encouraged David that God would do something similar ultimately with Saul. And that’s what this passage represents. God finally brought the failed leadership of King Saul to an end. God’s promises never fail.
Well, I’d like to now turn in our second point to see some of the bad results that are associated with Saul’s death. There’s two main kinds of bad results here. On the one hand is Israel’s great loss. On the other hand is the Philistines’ great gain and glory. Think first about Israel’s great loss. We see first in verse 1, that the Israelite army suffered a huge defeat. They fell slain on the battlefield. It wasn’t just Saul who died here. Many Israelite solders under Saul’s failed leadership died that day. Surely this was a great loss to Israel to lose so many soldiers that day. Keep in mind, these aren’t just “soldiers.” These are husbands and fathers and sons. These are loved ones. How sad to lose so many people that day.
In a similar vein, we see verse 2. Not only did Saul die, and not only did so many Israelites in general die, but Saul’s three sons die. He actually has one more named Ishbosheth that we’ll learn about in 2 Samuel, but for now see how sad this is. These royal princes die, again, largely due to their father’s failed leadership. Notice that this includes even Jonathan. Jonathan, who under other circumstances would have been heir to the throne, and who showed himself as such a godly man, he died here. Surely the loss of godly Jonathan, himself a proven hero of Israel, was a great loss to the nation. And of course we can’t forget the great friendship Jonathan and David had together. They loved each other so much. Jonathan was so looking forward to the day when David became king so that he could faithfully stand before David in service to his kingdom. But alas, as a fallout of Saul’s failed leadership, Jonathan himself dies here. How great of a loss to Israel that day!
And then look at verse 7. Here it describes yet further loss to Israel. There were many Israelite towns right near where the battle took place, that when they saw the defeat, they fled these towns. In other words, there was a great loss of land in the Promised Land to these uncircumcised heathens. Again, what a failure for Saul. He had originally been anointed by God. He was to be a messianic figure for Israel. He should have, by the power of God, led the people to more completely take hold of the Promised Land. But instead as Saul’s failed kingship comes to an end, they actually lose land to the heathen.
And so then look at the gain and glory that these godless Gentiles get out of all of this. Besides the fact that they gain this land in the Promised Land like we just said, also look at verse 9. The next day after the battle they discover Saul and his sons dead. And so what do they do in the aftermath of this great victory, especially that they killed the kings and his sons? They celebrate. And not just do they celebrate, but in verse 9 we see they send word back to proclaim the victory. They proclaim the victory among their people, and in the temple of their idols. They send news back home of this victory. You could call it good news, “gospel”, for them. And they send it to both their peoples, and to their temples.
Do you see how horrible this is, and what this represents from a religious stand point? To these pagan Philistines, they chalk up the victory as a victory for their false gods. That’s why they proclaim it in the temples of their idols. Its why we go on to read that they took Saul’s armor and put it in the temple of the Ashtoreths. In 1 Chronicles 10 it says they put his head in the temple of Dagon. And so the Philistines see this victory at least in part in religious terms. Unfortunately for them they are interpreting it incorrectly. They glorify their false gods for the victory, when the reality it was the Lord, the one true God of the Bible, the God of Israel, who had allowed them this victory. The Philistine victory wasn’t an affirmation of their false gods, but an affirmation of God’s judgment upon King Saul.
And of course the celebrating of the Philistines is further seen with how they treat the bodies of Saul and his sons. They hang them on public display in the town of Beh Shan. This is obviously shameful to the house of Saul. And its frankly shameful to all of Israel. It’s not only celebrating the victory, to hang the bodies, but it’s mocking Israel. And since Israel is God’s people, the mockery ultimately in some way reflects back on God. It’s a way that they ultimately mock God.
You see, that’s why we should see this as such a bad thing. That’s why we should see the Philistine’s gain and glory as something bad. In 2 Samuel 1, so next chapter, David will write a lament about Saul and Jonathan’s death. He writes this in 2 Samuel 1:19-20:
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon —
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
And so David doesn’t want the fall of Saul and Jonathan proclaimed in the Philistine lands, but that is exactly what happens. David didn’t want that because it would be a way these godless heathen would triumph here, but that’s not what we should ultimately want. We shouldn’t want the evil wicked godless people to triumph while God’s people fail in defeat. Do you see how bad all this was for Israel? Do you see how Saul’s destruction here not only has horrible consequences in Israel’s own loss, but also in the gain and glory that the Philistines receive? All of this seems so backwards for what should be going on. It should be the godless Philistines who find defeat and the people of God who find victory.
Let me make sure my second point here is clear. This is another dark time for Israel. Remember toward the start of this book, the priesthood of Eli failed Israel? Remember how then God promised the removal of that line of priests and the promise of a better priesthood to come? Remember how it resulted in them losing the Ark of the Covenant in great military defeat? Remember how Eli the priest fell to his death at this shame? Remember how they cried “Ichabod” at that time, saying how the glory of God had departed from Israel. Remember the shame? And now, after they thought they found the solution with a king, we find such similarities. The line of King Saul had failed Israel and God declared it was to not continue. God promised a new better kingdom to come. And here too as Saul falls to his death on his sword, the people are left in great shame, while their glory goes to their enemies. This is another sort of Ichabod moment as the chapter ends with the people mourning and fasting.
And so it was the case with the priesthood and again now with the king – that the people had such bad leadership. Here, King Saul had led them to this horrible place. And yet before you start to feel too bad for Israel here, that they got stuck bearing the fruit of such a bad leader like Saul, just remember one thing. This is what they asked for. They asked for a king like all the other nations; God warned them; but God gave them what they wanted. And they have seen how bad this went for them.
And yet there was yet hope for Israel. This brings us now to our third point. One aspect of hope that we see in this passage is what we see in verses 11-13. We see some of the valiant men of Jabesh Gilead rise up and by night recover the bodies of Saul and his sons. They then give them a proper burial. Were not told why they first burn the bodies here; that was not a normal practice. One commentator suggested that this would prevent the bodies being recaptured and being hung up again. That’s possible. But we should see this as a commendable action and a good thing; something of hope even. We see the text here call these men as “valiant.” And they are of course successful in this covert operation to take back the bodies, praise the Lord. In fact, we’ll see this in chapter 2 of 2 Samuel that David will come to the men of Jabesh Gilead and greatly commend them for this and bless them in the name of the LORD.
And not only that, but notice what these men of Jabesh Gilead do. They lament. They lament through fasting for seven days. This is surely a religious thing, and not just an act of mourning. So you can’t help but see some hope here. In the midst of bad leadership with Saul, and all of Israel’s downfall, we get this glimpse of some strong men of God here yet looking to do the right godly thing. You could say it’s a reminder that God always has his remnant among his people. That even among the dark times of God’s chastisement among his people, and in the times that he cuts off the apostates from among his people, you get to see how he has preserved a remnant. I can’t help but be reminded of that when I see these godly and courageous men of Jabesh Gilead. So see the hope for Israel when you see the men of Jabesh Gilead.
Of course, you might recall the history Jabesh Gilead had with regards to Saul. This is surely not coincidence why the men of this town stepped up to go and rescue these bodies. Remember all the way back to chapter 11. When Saul was first starting out as king, some people wondered if he could be a king that could save the people. And so God used Saul in a wonderful way to save a town called, yes -that’s right, a town called Jabesh Gilead. That is when Nahash the Ammonite tried to get the town of Jabesh Gilead to surrender and agree to have all their right eyes plucked out. King Saul then came to their rescue with the help of God. What was so wonderful at that time was that it showed what Saul could have been. In other words, it was this wonderful start to Saul’s career. If Saul had only been faithful to walk with the Lord as king, then what started so well at Jabesh Gilead could have continued. But of course, we know that it didn’t. And so here at the end of Saul’s life, we are reminded of his beginning as king. He started out so well, but he ultimately shows that he wasn’t to be the kind of king the people ultimately needed.
And that then reminds us of the other aspect of hope that is here. I’m talking about the hope of king David. It’s what we’ve been reading about for many chapters. Yes, God’s people sinned by asking for a king like Saul. God gave them that king. But now he would give them a better king. A king after God’s own heart. And so we should realize that what is happening here in chapter 31 is basically going on at the same time as chapter 30. In other words, while Saul and Israel is experience a huge defeat and a great loss, David was winning a wonderful victory against the Amelkites, despite all the humanly odds against him. David then shares the spoil with the tribe of Judah. We will see in the next few chapters that first the tribe of Judah will make David king, and then all of Israel will ultimately make him king. In other words, the hope that is here, that though Israel loses their king and suffers all this loss, that God is simultaneously raising up a savior for Israel in a new godly king, King David. God of course had promised this to David. And it’s imminently about to come to pass. God’s promises never fail.
And so with the hope of David about to become king, we know that this means that ultimately the hope looks beyond David to his greater son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The establishment of David’s kingdom is ultimately about the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom. God knew the people needed a better king than Saul. He would soon give them David. But God knew that his people ultimately needed a king even better than the godly David. They needed a king that could deliver them not just from the Philistines and the Amalekites, but from even the enemies of Satan, sin, and even death. That would come in Jesus Christ.
Of course as someone who was previously a Gentile according to the flesh, I’m thinking of how the need for Jesus Christ is especially seen from this passage. Here’s an interesting thought. Saul here misses one final opportunity to show himself as a Christ-like figure. He’s so scared of being handed over to Gentiles because of what might have happened to him. Maybe he remembered what happened to Samson, as we suggested. And yet think of what happened to Samson. Samson ended up captured by the Philistines because of his sin. But in one mighty act of repentance he brought a pagan temple to the ground, from his captivity, and ended up given one final blow to the enemy. Samson at least went out looking messianic. Judges 16:30 say this about Sampson there, “So the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life.” Samson had to sacrifice his life to do it, but it was a meaningful sacrifice. Saul doesn’t do this. He selfishly kills himself, without repentance, and never knowing how God might have used him, if he but repented and turned back to God. He was too worried about what those Gentiles might do to him. And yet ironically and sadly, Saul’s actions didn’t stop the Philistines from yet capturing his dead body and abusing it.
And so think about how Jesus faced somewhat similar circumstances. Jesus knew that soon the wicked Jewish leaders would conspire with the evil pagan Romans to capture Jesus and put him to death. Jesus knew that it would involve the torturous and shameful death of hanging on a cross. People would mock him. His enemies would declare victory. But actually Jesus won. In Jesus’ death, even more than Sampson, he secured an even greater victory than in his life. For in his death, and subsequent resurrection, he secured salvation for his people; salvation from Satan, sin, and death.
And as it relates to Gentiles: Jesus has made a way for even us who were previously pagan Gentiles to be included among God’s people. That we could come bowing the knee to King Jesus, and be saved. That Jews and Gentiles in Jesus Christ could be united as one church, in one glorious kingdom. That is the hope that we have brothers and sisters.
And so the book of 1 Samuel ends in a rather bleak way. But it breaks open into 2 Samuel with the hope being realized with David becoming King. And it’s in that book, in chapter 7, where we receive such a wonderful promise of the Messiah that would come from David’s line. So that bleakness of this book gives way to great hope. Hope that as God promised to Abraham, that all the families in the earth would find blessing through his offspring. That has come about in Jesus Christ. God’s promises never fail.
Let us be renewed then today in joy that God keeps his promises. And let us be reminded again of the importance of godly leadership. That’s a theme we’ve seen again today. Yes, we want this in our church’s leaders. Seek that. But especially realize that our ultimate leader is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May we all, leaders and lay people alike, seek to have Jesus’ words and teachings and leadership at the forefront of all that we do. Even as we look forward to his return. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.