A. If you bring up the subject of death and you will get many different reactions from people.
1. Some can easily and readily talk about it, and others cannot.
B. When you ask children about death, they say some interesting things.
1. A 7 year-old boy named Alan said this, “God doesn’t tell you when you are going to die because He wants it to be a big surprise.”
2. 9 year-old Marsha said, “When you die, you don’t have to do homework in heaven, unless your teacher is there too.”
3. Aaron, age 8 said, “The hospital is the place where people go on their way to heaven.”
4. Stephanie, age 9 said, “Doctors help you so you won’t die until you pay all their bills.”
5. Finally, Kevin, age 10 said, “I’m not afraid to die because I’m a Boy Scout.”
C. As we turn to our text for today from 1 Samuel 31, we come to the very sad and tragic ending of the life of King Saul.
1. On the one hand, we might approach this chapter with a sense of relief.
2. We know Saul’s demise and death are coming; they were prophesied by Samuel long ago in chapters 13, and 15.
3. And then Saul’s impending death was confirmed explicitly when Samuel was brought back from the grave by the witch of Endore in chapter 28.
4. But now that his pitiful death is imminent, we are not quite ready for it.
5. As the Spirit of God inspires the writer who records Saul’s death, he does so in a wondrously understated fashion.
a. There is no gloating by the David party.
b. There is no rush to move to the next stage of Israel’s history.
c. There is no heavy verdict passed on Saul.
7. The action itself is permitted to have its own say.
I. The Story
A. The biblical story of Saul’s death goes like this, the Bible says, “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.’
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.” (31:1-6)
1. The Philistines continue to be a present and dangerous enemy of Israel.
2. That was the case before Saul took office as king, and nothing has changed under his reign.
3. The text tells us that Israel is under massive assault, and the dead are piling up quickly.
4. One commentator noted that the Philistine forces attacked not only with armed men on foot, but also with archers riding in chariots, and that Israel was no match for these.
5. Like the reading of the obituary at a funeral service, the text names the dead of Saul’s family: “and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua.” (31:2)
6. Many more loyal comrades fell beside these sons, but they are not named.
7. After the death of his sons, it is Saul, alone, who comes into lonely focus.
8. The narrator gives us the sense that there are not even Philistines present nearby, only Saul and his death.
B. As we have seen so often, life is all about choices, and Saul often made the wrong ones.
1. Here at the time of his death he is still forced to make choices.
2. He has been critically wounded, and does not want to fall into the hands of his enemies to be exposed to further torture.
3. He does not want to kill himself, for that is not the course a brave warrior should choose.
4. So he asks his only remaining aide to kill him, but the armor-bearer will not obey.
5. The text says that he wouldn’t do it because he was afraid, but was it a fear of respect, devotion or just plain fear?
C. As an aside consider this – the armor-bearer’s refusal to obey Saul’s command to finish him off is remarkable for the contrast it provides to our present culture’s glib appeals to and apologies for mercy-killing.
1. We can hardly fault king Saul’s request – he was already dying, and his speedy death would free him from additional suffering.
2. Calls for euthanasia, mercy-killing, makes sense in many respects until we step back and realize that life is a sacred gift, and none of us have the authority to take life and death into our own hands.
3. I realize that we can’t put too much emphasis on this armor-bearer’s actions in favor of life, because moments later he did take his own life.
4. But his instinctive negative response to Saul’s request to take his life, should stand as a challenge to our cultures increasing preference for convenient death, either at the beginning of life or the end.
D. Now back to our story.
1. When the armor-bearer refused to take Saul’s life, Saul still has options, and he chooses again.
2. Saul does not comment or speak to explain or justify.
3. Swiftly and wordlessly, he rises up and falls on his sword.
4. The armor-bearer aghast at what we witnessed, followed suit and took his own life.
5. No doubt had he survived the battle, his own life would have been in jeopardy for failing to save the king.
6. The narrator draws a summary that is majestic in its brevity: “So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.” (31:6)
E. Verse 7 indicates what the death of the king meant to Israel, the Bible says, “When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.” (31:7)
1. Without a king, even this pitiful king, Israel is hopeless.
2. The territory was quickly claimed by the Philistines.
F. The sad story ends with Saul being humiliated, and then honored.
1. The Bible says, “The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.
When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” (31:8-13)
2. The conventional practice in war was for the victor to return to the battlefield and strip the slain.
3. Taking all the weapons, equipment and valuables from the enemy might mean your own survival in the days to come if the enemy were to try to rally.
4. Whatever you take away, the enemy cannot use against you in the future.
5. So as the Philistines began to strip the dead, they stumbled upon the bodies of Saul and his sons.
6. The death of an enemy king, when discovered, was good news.
a. Strategically, the king’s death means that the military threat has lost its main force.
b. Theologically, it means that the enemy god has been defeated.
7. When the Philistines found the fallen corpses of Saul and his sons, they severed his head, just as David had severed Goliath’s head.
8. This grisly trophy of their triumph was sent all around their cities and villages to celebrate their victory in their idol temples.
9. Saul’s armor was put on display in their temple of Ashtoreths the goddess of war.
10. As a final insult, the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung up on the city walls of Beth Shan to be mocked and further violated.
11. Fortunately, the story does not end there.
G. The final sentences of the story do not change the reality – Saul is still dead, the Philistines have still won, and Israel is still in distress and chaos.
1. Nevertheless, there are gestures of human fidelity and decency that must be performed.
2. Saul long ago had intervened to save Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites (chapter 11), and the people of Jabesh Gilead have not forgotten.
3. And so the valiant men of Jabesh Gilead come with resolve, and certainly some risk, and take possession of the bodies of Saul, and his sons, giving them a proper burial.
4. Saul had stood up for them, and so they stood up for Saul, even if al that’s left of him is his mutilated corpse.
5. No matter what Saul had done that was wrong, nothing could erase their appreciation for that one time he had done something right and good for them, and for that they had to show their gratitude.
A. I would like us to consider two of the many lessons we can learn from today’s story.
B. The first lesson is that each of us will someday die, and then face our Maker’s judgment in response to the choices we have made.
1. As we step back from this horribly, tragic scene, we might conclude that the greatest tragedy of all is that it need never have been.
2. Saul actually had a very promising beginning.
a. In 1 Sam. 9:2 we are told that Saul was “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.”
b. But his great potential vanished in the ruble of his sinful choices.
3. Saul actually chose this path of destruction inch by inch, day by day, disobedient act after disobedient act.
4. What should be the epitaph inscribed upon Saul’s tombstone?
a. 1n 1 Samuel 26:21, Saul made a statement that kind of summarizes the monarch’s life.
b. He said, “I have sinned…Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly.”
5. J. Sidlow Baxter aptly described what it means to play the fool, when he wrote:
a. “A man plays the fool when he neglects his godly friends, as Saul neglected Samuel.
b. A man plays the fool when he goes on enterprises for God before God has sent him, as Saul did.
c. A man plays the fool when he disobeys God even in seemingly small matters, as Saul at first did; for such disobedience nearly always leads on to worse default.
d. A man plays the fool when he tries to cover up his disobedience to God by religious excuses, as Saul did – “To obey is better than sacrifice” says the Lord.
e. A man plays the fool when he tries to persuade himself that he is doing the will of God, as Saul tried to persuade himself, when all the time, deep down in his heart, he knows otherwise.
f. A man plays the fool when he allows some jealousy or hatred to master and enslave and deprave him, as Saul did, toward David.
g. A man plays the fool when he knowingly fights against God, as Saul did in hunting David, to save his own face.
h. A man plays the fool when he turns from God, from the God he has grieved, and seeks an alternative in spiritism, in traffic with spirits in the beyond.
i. The end of all these ways of sin and folly is moral and spiritual suicide. We can only finish any such downgrade course with the pathetic groan of Saul, ‘I have played the fool.’” (J. Sidlow Baxter, Mark These Men, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1980, p. 35)
6. We must be careful to hear and heed this lesson.
a. What happened to Saul can easily happen to us.
b. We must deal with sin or it will deal with us.
7. When I come to the end of my life, I don’t want to cry out like King Saul, “Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly!”
a. No, I want to be able to declare what the other Saul of the Bible declared. Saul of Tarsus, who had persecuted the church was transformed into Paul the apostle.
b. When Paul knew that his end was near, he wrote, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:6-8)
8. That kind of assurance doesn’t come because we have lived such a perfect life and never played the fool and erred.
a. No, that kind of assurance comes because of the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus, and our trust in it.
b. We know that we remain in grace as we walk in the light as He is in the light (1 Jn. 1:7)
c. And we know that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:9)
9. Truth is we are all going to die some day and face the judgment, so we want to live in a way that makes us ready at any moment.
a. Woody Allen’s statement about death has always tickled me. He said, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
b. But like it or not, we are going to be there when it happens. Ready or not, expected or unexpected, death comes.
10. One activity that keeps the reality of life and death very tangible is flying.
a. In the last few months we have seen the miracle on the Hudson in NYC, and the tragedy in Buffalo.
b. All the people on one plane lived and all the people on the other plane died.
c. Death can come that suddenly.
11. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
12. Therefore, the first lesson I hope we learn from today’s story is that each of us will someday die and face our Maker and we want to be sure the choices that we are making will lead to a warm welcome and an eternal reward from God.
C. The second lesson that resonated with me from today’s story is that loss always leads to mourning.
1. Whatever the loss we are facing, whether it be the loss of a job, the loss of our health, the loss of a marriage, or a relationship, or the loss of a loved one in death – all these losses involve a process of mourning.
2. In today’s text, the loss was the death of the first king of Israel.
a. And even though Saul had not been a great king, the loss is still very hard and the people mourned with fasting for seven days.
3. When I got to thinking about it, I concluded that most losses carry with them an assortment of feelings, and sometimes those feelings are mixed or conflicting.
a. Many times when someone we love dies the gamut of emotions can include – relief, sorrow, emptiness, anger, loneliness and fear just to name a few.
b. When a marriage ends up in divorce there can be a similar range of emotions – on the one hand there can be great relief because the conflict is final over, but at the same time there can be feelings of great sorrow, guilt and failure.
4. Whatever the loss, there will be feelings. The greater the loss, the greater the feelings.
a. Those feelings take time to work through and heal.
5. I’ve got to confess to you that I’m grieving the loss of our relationship with the prominent, leadership family in the congregation.
a. I had sincerely hoped for a different and better conclusion to the situation – and there is still hope for change in the future.
b But for now, I’m hurting, and I’m sure you are, and they must be to one degree or another.
c. For me the emotions include bewilderment, anger, sorrow, love concern, and fear.
6. But I trust that God is at work.
a. We elders have placed this in His capable hands and we have been guided by God’s wisdom.
b. I also trust that it is God who brings healing for all emotions and all situations.
7. God has declared, “I am the LORD, who heals you.” (Ex. 15:26)
a. Our God is a God who “…heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Ps. 147:3)
b. Jesus gave us this invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:28-29)
8. Our losses in life may be very great, but our God is greater.
a. No matter what the loss or pain or grief we may endure, God has promised that He will never leave us.
b. We can trust Him to carry us through.
9. Israel was facing a very dark day when they lost to the Philistines and Saul died, but God was with them and already had a plan in place for a very bright future for them.
a. And the same is true for us.
b. No matter how dark or sad the times, there are wonderful and glorious days ahead, if not in this world, then certainly in the next.
10. Our job is to simply trust in the Lord and walk faithfully with Him, being ready to meet Him at any moment, ready for eternity.
11. May God give us the mercy and strength we need for each moment!
D. Let me ask you: Do you need to come for healing?
1. Are there things in your life that need to change before you are ready to meet your Lord?
2. If so, then I implore you to come to the Lord and do not delay for none of us knows how much time we have.
David – A Man of Passion and Destiny, by Charles R. Swindoll, Word Publishing, 1997.
David I, by W. Phillip Keller, Word Books, 1985.
The Making of a Man of God, by Alan Redpath, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1962.
I and II Samuel, David F. Payne, The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster Press, 1982
First and Second Samuel, J. Carl Laney, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, Moody Bible Institute, 1982.
First and Second Samuel, Eugene Peterson, Westminster Bible Companion, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
First and Second Samuel, Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1990.