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Saul is killed by the Philistines, but his remains are recovered by faithful men and buried with honour and dignity by David!
In chapter 31, we return to the battle which was raging on Mount Gilboa. The fighting went so heavily against the Israelites that many were slain and the rest of the army began to flee. As they retreated, Jonathan and his two brothers were killed and king Saul was mortally wounded by an arrow. Saul turned to his armour-bearer and begged (v41): "Draw thy sword, and thrust me through there with, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me." The armour-bearer was rightly afraid to harm the Lord's anointed, so Saul put the hilt of his sword against the ground and fell on it and, when his faithful armour-bearer saw that he was dead he did likewise, and died. Verse 6 summarizes the situation, saying, "So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armour-bearer, and all his men, that same day together." Saul and the Israelite army are fighting Philistines just about the same time David and his men are in pursuit of the Amalekite raiders. We know this is at least approximately the case because we are told that David learns of Saul's death on the third day after he and his men arrive back at Ziklag, victorious over the Amalekites (2 Samuel 1:1-2). God providentially removes David from this conflict by occupying his attention even farther to the south. Thus David is not allowed to fight for or against the Philistines and it is God's will that in this battle between Israel and the Philistines, the Philistines will win and Saul and his sons will die in the battle.
The death of Saul and his sons is reminiscent of the death of Eli and his sons in chapter 4 for, in both instances, death and defeat comes at the hands of the Philistines. In both cases, fathers and sons die in the same day and in both defeats, not only the leader dies, but many Israelites as well, indicative of a divine judgement on the nation. The Philistines' victory is an individual disaster for Saul and Eli, and for Saul's sons and Eli's sons, and it is seemingly a national disaster for Israel as we read in verse 7. Those on the other side of the valley and across the Jordan (who are not the focus of the Philistine attack) see the defeat of Israel and the death of Saul and his sons, and know there is no hope of defeating the Philistines. They flee for their lives, abandoning their cities, which the Philistines then occupy. This great defeat not only reduces the size of Israel's army but also reduces the size of Israel. Thus Israel, as well as Saul, is being divinely disciplined, for Saul was the king the Israelites demanded in chapter 8, and their demand to have a king was evidence that they had rejected God as their king (1 Samuel 8:7-8). It was not just for Saul's sins that Israel was defeated and many died, but it was for Israel's sins as well and we remember how Samuel (1 Samuel 12) very closely linked the conduct and destiny of Israel and their king.
The next morning the Philistines returned to the battle-field to strip the bodies of the slain of their valuables as was their custom then and a practice which was still followed by the Palestinian Arabs (the descendants of the Philistines) as recently as World War II in North Africa. The Philistines were surprised and delighted to discover a prize beyond their highest expectations - the bodies of Saul and his sons. They duly cut off Saul's head, "and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people" and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan, and hung his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth. Some may consider this fact to be a discrepancy for, sixty-five years earlier, following the battle of Aphek, the Philistines placed the spoils of the Ark of God in the temple of Dagon. We know that the Philistines were then worshippers of the fish-headed god Dagon. But here, in I Samuel 31, we read that they put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth. I Chronicles 10:10 seems to add to the confusion when it says they put his armour in the house of their gods and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon. So we read that Chronicles records the temple of Dagon whereas Samuel records the temple of Ashtaroth and thus we have two different pagan worship systems. Archaeology has once again provided an answer by the discovery of eleventh century B.C. "dual temples." We learnt earlier that the Philistines, who were worshippers of the fish-headed god Dagon during their conquest, followed henotheistic practices and had consequently adopted the worship of Ashtaroth as well. Therefore, once again, the Bible is found to be totally accurate in this matter with I Samuel 31:10 recording the temple of Ashtaroth while I Chronicles 10:10 specifies the temple of Dagon, a fact that was not confirmed until the discovery by the archaeologists.
Finally, we read of a great memorial act for, when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done, all the valiant men of the city walked all night and, at the risk of their lives, took the bodies of Saul and his sons down from the ("open square," ref. 2 Samuel 21:12) wall of Bethshan, carried them back to Jabesh and burned them there. We remember why these inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead risk their lives for the bodies of dead men because, almost forty years earlier, Saul's first military exploit was the rescue of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead from the invasion of Nahash the Ammonite (I Samuel 11:1-9). This first great act of the new king of Israel was not forgotten, and their gratitude was such that, almost forty years later, they risked their lives to remove the body of the man who had rescued their ancestors and we read of the respect and esteem they had for Saul and his family for (v133) "they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days."
Later we see David's reaction when he is informed (2 Samuel 2:4-53) by the men of Judah that: "It was the men of Jabesh-gilead who buried Saul." David promptly sent messengers to the men of Jabesh-gilead, and said to them, "May you be blessed of the Lord because you have shown this kindness to Saul your lord, and have buried him." David also showed his respect for the first human king of Israel, for (2 Samuel 21:12-143) "he took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabesh-gilead . . . . And he brought up the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from there, and they gathered the bones of those who had been hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the grave of Kish his father; thus they did all that the king commanded, and after that God was moved by entreaty for the land."
With the death of Saul and his sons, his dynasty came to an end, and the ninety-year period covered by the book of I Samuel also came to an end. Saul died, just as God said he would and the timing of Saul's death was precisely as predicted and in the manner God prescribed, for he died at the hands of the Philistines and an Amalekite. Saul also died in a manner entirely consistent with the way he lived his life. Even at the very end of his life, Saul did not really die like a man of courage. We are shown again that God's word is absolutely reliable. God will do as He has promises and He will deal with sin and rebellion in judgment and with trust and obedience in blessing. Saul is removed from his throne and from life while David is preserved from Saul's plots and soon installed as king of Judah and then of Israel. Before the first man ever sinned, God declared that the penalty for sin was death (Genesis 2:16-17) and from that point on, God has spoken clearly to men with respect to sin. His word not only defines sin, it spells out the consequences for sin - death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). God gave Saul time to repent, but he did not and so his death came to pass just as God had said. We may, like Saul, choose to use the time God gives for repentance as the opportunity to add to our sins, but we can be assured that our sins will find us out and the wages of sin is death. If we repent, by acknowledging our sin and trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation, we will have eternal life. But we can be assured that God's promises, both of judgment and of salvation, are certain and Saul reminds us of this truth.
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