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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 31

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-13

IV. Death and Burial of Saul and his Sons

1 Samuel 31:1-13. [Comp. 1 Chronicles 10:0]

1Now [And] the Philistines fought1 against Israel, and the men of Israel fled 2from before the Philistines and fell down slain2 in mount Gilboa. And the Philistines followed hard3 upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan 3and Abinadab and Melchishua,4 Saul’s sons. And the battle went sore against Saul and the archers5 hit him, and he was sore wounded [sore afraid] of 4the archers. Then said Saul [And Saul said] unto his armour-bearer, Draw thy sword and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through6 and abuse me. But his armour-bearer would not, for he was sore 5afraid. Therefore [And] Saul took a [the] sword and fell upon it. And when his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise [he also fell] upon his 6sword and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons and his armour-bearer 7and7 all his men that same day together. And when the men of Israel that were on the other side of [beyond]8 the valley [plain] and they that were on the other side [beyond] Jordan saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.

8And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, 9that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa. And they cut off his head and stripped off his armour, and sent9 into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house [houses]10 of their idols and among the people. 10And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth, and they fastened11 his body to the wall of Bethshan.12

11And when [om. when] the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead heard of that which the 12Philistines had done to Saul, All [And all] the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons from the well of Bethshan, 13and came to Jabesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried them under a tree [the tamarisk] at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.


1 Samuel 31:1-7. The battle lost. Death of Saul and his sons.

1 Samuel 31:1 is connected with 1 Samuel 29:1 (comp. 1 Samuel 28:1; 1 Samuel 28:4 sq.). The partcp. “were fighting” [so the Heb.] presupposes the account given in 1 Samuel 28:1; 1 Samuel 28:4 and 1 Samuel 29:1 of the preparations for the battle, and thence forms an adjectival sentence, which is to be understood thus: “When now the Philistines,” etc., “the men of Israel fled,” etc. Driven from the place the men of Israel took refuge in mount Gilboa (see 1 Samuel 28:4), and were thither followed by the Philistines and slain. [Or, less probably, the mountain itself may have been the scene of battle.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 31:2. Sept. renders: “the Philistines press closely on, come up with (συνάπτουσι);” it does not, however, thence follow that they read Impf. Qal (of דבק) with לְ, for the Hiph. with Acc. (so 1 Chronicles 10:2 it is used with the Prep. “after,” comp. 1 Samuel 14:22; Judges 20:45), also means “to hang closely at one’s feet, overtake him” (comp. Judges 18:22).—On the three sons of Saul see on 1 Samuel 14:49.

1 Samuel 31:3. “The battle went sore to (אֶל) Saul.” It is unnecessary to read “against” (עַל) instead of “to,” since the phrase describes the movement of the battle “towards” Saul; the battle was sore “towards” Saul, after his three sons had fallen. [Vulg.: “the whole weight of the battle turned against [or towards] Saul.”—Tr.] The archers especially harassed him. Men with the bow is in apposition with “shooters” (מוֹרִים). Render: They hit him (taken absolutely), not “hit him with the bow,” the verb not being elsewhere so used.13 And he was sore afraid (from חיל or חול), not, as Sept. and Vulg., “was sore wounded,” this signification for the verb חלל (= חלה) “being not proved” (Keil). [The signification “wounded” would be permissible but for the masoretic pointing and the following Prep.—Tr.] He “trembled, was frightened” at the archers, because, the battle going hard against him, he saw no way of escaping them, or of resisting the enemy’s superior force, especially as, since the death of his sons, he was alone with his armor-bearer. And even if we suppose that it was not despairing fear that he felt (which, however, after the scene at Endor, might well get control of him, notwithstanding his old heroism of character), but only failure of resources (Thenius), yet his fear and trembling at the shame that threatened him (1 Samuel 31:4) may be easily explained. Thenius thinks that his request to his armor-bearer to kill him is intelligible only on the supposition that he was badly wounded, and so unfit for resistance, and properly also for self-destruction. But, as he finally killed himself, he could not have been too badly wounded for this. It is quite in keeping with Saul’s condition of soul (abandoned to despair) that, at the mere possibility of being slain by the Philistines he sought death at the hands of his attendant. Clearly in favor of this view, and against the other, is Saul’s address to his armor-bearer: Draw thy sword and pierce me therewith, lest these un-circumcised come and pierce me and abuse me. Saul had a strong consciousness of the sacredness of his person as the Anointed of the Lord, and must therefore have held it a great shame to be slain by the idolatrous, unclean heathen. The armor-bearer would not, for he was sore afraid; he had, indeed, to defend the king’s life, and was responsible for its preservation. And Saul took the sword and fell on it; that is, having set the hilt on the ground, he threw the weight of his body on the point, and thus killed himself. The scene is clearly and vividly portrayed with a few admirable strokes. [For the meaning of the contrary account 2 Samuel 1:10 see notes on that passage.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 31:5. The armor-bearer’s fear, here again brought forward, was based, no doubt, on the above-named consideration; he was answerable for the king’s person, and might also be apprehensive that he would be regarded as his murderer. He followed his lord’s example, and slew himself. At the same time also all his men were slain. 1 Chronicles 10:6 has “all his house” instead of “all his men.” Certainly Abner, who was no doubt in the battle, had not fallen, 2 Samuel 11:8 (Then.), but that is not inconsistent with the statement, since he, as Saul’s General (1 Samuel 14:50 sq.) belonged, strictly speaking, neither to the “house” nor to the “men,” by which term we must understand the soldiers who were near the king’s person, his body-guard, as it were.

1 Samuel 31:7. A distinction is here made between the “men of Israel” who were non-combatants and dwelt east of the field of battle, and the “men of Israel” who formed the army. The former are described as those who dwelt “on the side of the plain and on the side of the Jordan.”14 The “plain” is the lowland between mount Gilboa on the south and little Hermon on the north, the continuation of the plain of Jezreel, into which the battle passed, so that the Israelites fled to mount Gilboa and were there slain. The Jordan with its western bank-terrain formed the border. Those who, from the station of the narrator (which we must take with Keil to be the battle-field in the plain of Jezreel) dwelt beyond, that is, opposite him on the mountain-terrain beside the plain and in the Jordan-flats, fled from their abodes when they saw the total defeat of the Israelitish army in the plain. They left the cities; Sept., Vulg., Syr., Chron. read “their cities,” a correct interpretation, but not proof of a different original text here (Then.). And the Philistines came and dwelt in them, not immediately, before the occurrence of what is next related (Then. against Bertheau), but from now on they took possession of the district with all its cities, settled themselves on the whole north and thence seized the rest of the country, so that they held the whole land except Perea on the east [beyond Jordan] and Judah in the south.

1 Samuel 31:8-10. The Philistines’ cruel and abusive treatment of the corpses of Saul and his three sons.

1 Samuel 31:8. After the anticipatory ethnographic statement in 1 Samuel 31:7 the narrative returns to the field of battle. And it came to pass on the morrow.—On the day after the battle, which had therefore probably lasted till evening, the darkness preventing plundering. On mount Gilboa they found Saul and his sons fallen (comp. 1 Samuel 31:1), the Israelitish army, and with it Saul and his sons, having fallen back thither from the plain before the victorious Philistines.

1 Samuel 31:9. Comp. 1 Chronicles 10:9 : “And they stripped him and took his head and his armor and sent …. ” Here it reads: And they cut off his head and stripped off his armor.—The And they sent is not to be connected with the “to publish it” (Then.), as if the Philistines had “beforehand” published the victory around, meantime retaining Saul’s head and armor, in order to carry them in triumph on their return, but according to the contrast we must supply “head and armor,” which they sent around to announce the good news to their idol-temples—that is, to the priests serving in the temples—and to the people.—Saul’s head and armor were the signs of victory for priests and people. Instead of “idol-temples”15 Chron. and Sept. have “idols” in accordance with the idea that the power of their idols was manifested in this victory.

1 Samuel 31:10. The Ashtaroth-houses16 are identical with these idol-temples. Instead of “Ashtaroth” Chron. has “their gods” [the general for the particular—Tr.]. And they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan.—The Chronicler has: “And they fastened his head on the temple of Dagon;” that is, he omits the statement about the corpse and adds this about the head. According to 1 Samuel 31:12 the Philistines act in the same way with the corpses of Saul’s sons. Our narrator, being occupied from this point of view chiefly with Saul’s fate, was concerned to relate first what was done with Saul’s body. As Bethshan (the present Beisan, Rob. III., I., 408 [Am. ed. II. 320, 328, 354; III. 326–332]), according to this, was in the hands] of the Philistines (so 1 Samuel 31:7), they held the country as far as the Jordan [Bethshan is four miles west of the Jordan and twelve miles south of the sea of Galilee—Tr.]. The corpses were fastened on without the heads, the latter, with the armor, being fixed on the temples as trophies of victory.

1 Samuel 31:11-13. The interment of the corpses by the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead.

1 Samuel 31:11. When the Jabeshites heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, they thought of what Saul had once done for them (1 Samuel 11:0.)—[Bib. Com.: a touching and rare example of national gratitude.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 31:12. They went the whole night and took (under cover of darkness) the corpses from the wall and brought them to Jabesh-Gilead and burnt them.—The bodies were burned (a practice peculiar to heathendom, allowed in Israel only in the case of the worst criminals, Leviticus 20:0)17 instead of being buried, as was usual, not because the Jabeshites feared further insult to the corpses if the Philistines should take their city (Then. [Philipps.]), but probably because their mutilation rendered them unfit for ordinary burial. The Chaldee, in contradiction with the text, understands the “burning” to refer to the solemn burning of spices, which was afterwards customary at the burial of kings.

1 Samuel 31:13. They took their bones and buried them; only the flesh, therefore, was burned, perhaps because it had already putrefied. They buried the bones under the tamarisk at Jabesh; the Chronicler: “under the oak at Jabesh.” The Art. indicates a well-known tree. The Chronicler, omitting the “night-march,” does not mention the taking of the bodies from the wall, as he had not mentioned their being fastened there, and also omits the burning of the corpses “because it was contrary to the prevailing custom” (Then.), not because he could not reconcile it with the burial of the bones (Keil). With grateful remembrance of Saul’s rescue of Jabesh, a public mourning with a seven days’ fast was made for him. David afterwards caused the bones to be interred in Saul’s family burial place at Zelah in Benjamin (2 Samuel 21:11-14).


1. The deepest and the real ground of Saul’s last dark act of self-destruction is not the extremity of the moment nor fear of insult from the enemy (Wuttcke, Eth. II. 171), though his words make this the immediate occasion of his suicide, but the decay of his inner life, which we have traced step by step, through unchecked self-will and unbending pride towards the living God, and through the complete severance of his heart from God. The straitened and disgraceful position to which the Philistines had brought him, whence there was no escape with life, was the result of his persistent, stubborn disobedience to God, and of the inward judicial infliction of self-hardening. As self-willed lord of his life, unbending, haughty controller of his fate over against God, he will put an end to his life; this is the end of the insoluble contradiction in which he had placed himself towards the holy and just God; this is the act of completed despair, in which God’s judgment is exhausted, and he himself must be its instrument.

2. In consequence of Saul’s misgovernment and his last unfortunate war with the Philistines, the kingdom of Israel had become disorganized. The latter part of his reign was a time of disintegration of the people, which had lost its proper unity under the theocratic king, and fallen into a disorganized condition like that of the Period of the Judges. A glimpse into this state of confusion is given us not merely by the indication in the First Book of Samuel of the support that David found during his persecution by Saul, but also by the additional statements in First Chronicles of the adhesion of fighting men to him and his cause. 1) 1 Chronicles 12:8-18 mentions not merely men of Judah, but also Gadites and Benjaminites, who came to him in the wilderness of Judah, comp. 1 Sam. 22:24-2) 1 Chronicles 12:1-7 relates the coming of the brave Benjaminites while David was in Ziklag, 1 Samuel 27:1 to 1 Samuel 7:3) 1 Chronicles 12:19-22 tells of the Manassites who joined him after his return to Ziklag before Saul’s last battle with the Philistines, 1 Samuel 29:3 sq. Thus David had an army in Ziklag (comp. 1 Chronicles 12:21), composed of fighting men from various tribes, who had gradually gathered around him, with which he was able immediately after Saul’s death to establish (first in Judah, in Hebron) the theocratic kingdom that had been delivered to him by divine calling and choice (comp. 2 Samuel 2:1-11).—Ewald: “The city became in fact the foundation of David’s whole kingdom.”


1 Samuel 31:1. Osiander: For the sake of an ungodly ruler sometimes a whole people or land is punished.—Starke: They who share the sin are justly made to share the punishment also. Even God’s people do not always carry off the victory, and their sins are commonly to blame for it.

1 Samuel 31:2. Cramer: In common punishments pious people must often suffer along with the ungodly (Ezekiel 21:3; Ecclesiastes 9:2). But let no one take offence at this, let him rather believe that to them that love God, even such things must work together for good (Romans 8:28).—[Henry: Jonathan falls with the rest. 1. God would hereby complete the judgment that was to be executed upon Saul’s house. 2. He would hereby make David’s way to the crown clear and open. Jonathan himself would have cheerfully resigned all his title and interest to him; but his friends would probably have been zealous for the right line of succession. 3. God would hereby show us that the difference between good and bad is to be made in the other world, not in this.—Tr.]—Tueb. Bible: God bears long with sinners, especially the revengeful; but at last His judgments break in so that they can no longer be kept back.

1 Samuel 31:3. Berl. Bib.: Saul’s death is a mournful picture of the dreadful death of a soul that forsakes the tranquillity and the way of God, in which through the goodness of God it had been led, and falls from one sin into another.—From what the Scriptures relate of Saul it can be seen how in souls that have swerved from the right path one sin is wont always to follow upon another.

1 Samuel 31:4. Hedinger [from Hall]: Wicked men care more for the shame of the world than the danger of their souls (Judges 9:54).—Schlier: So ends the man who formerly began well. How frightful it is to die in one’s sins, to depart impenitent, to go uncalled before the judgment-seat of God! How terrible it is to have nothing to show but a wasted time of grace!—[Hall: Evil examples, especially of the great, never escaped imitation; the armor-bearer of Saul follows his master, and dares do that to himself which to his king he durst not.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 31:6. Cramer: When God’s wrath blazes out, there is no ceasing. And it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).—S. Schmid: The judgments of God, which befall the pious and the ungodly alike, are rather to be wondered at than curiously investigated.—Schlier: A fearful end is only the conclusion of a foregoing life; sin begins little and invisible, hardening goes on step by step. Sin is a frightful power: first man commits sin, and when he has long continued to commit it, he is at length unable to cease from it, and the end is that he no longer wishes to cease from it. Think of Saul’s end and learn in time to be wise.

1 Samuel 31:7. Berl. Bib.: So finely has Saul presided over the kingdom of Israel through his perverse ways, that even so many cities have been lost. O how there does arise even in temporal things nothing but injury through perverse ways, especially those of the shepherds and leaders of the people!—Starke: When God designs to punish His people, He takes away their courage, so that even at a rustling leaf they fear and flee (Leviticus 26:36).—Cramer: No one sits too high for God; He can easily cast down even the mighty to the ground (Luke 1:52; Ezekiel 21:6; Sir 10:5).—[1 Samuel 31:9-10. Henry: Thus did they ascribe the honor of their victory, not, as they ought to have done, to the real justice of the true God, but to the imaginary power of their false gods; and by this respect paid to pretended deities, shame those who give not the praise of their achievements to the living God.—Tr.]

[1 Samuel 31:4. Suicide, as illustrated by the case of Saul: I. Causes: 1) Not merely accumulated misfortunes, but long-continued wrong-doing; 2) Cowardly fear of suffering (1 Samuel 31:3), even in a man formerly brave; 3) Caring more for disgrace than for sin; 4) Abandonment of trust in God, as to this life and the future life. II. Effects: 1) Others led by the example into the same folly and sin (1 Samuel 31:5); 2) Personal dishonor not really prevented (1 Samuel 31:4; 1 Samuel 31:9-10); 3) A crowning and lasting reproach to the man’s memory.

[1 Samuel 31:11-13. The exploit of the men of Jabesh-Gilead: 1) It was a brave deed; 2) A patriotic deed; 3) A grateful deed (chap. 11); 4) But the bravery, patriotism and gratitude had been better shown before Saul’s death by helping him (which they do not appear to have done). Honors after death make poor amends for neglect and unfaithfulness during life; 5) And care of the poor remains could avail little for the man’s reputation in this world, and nothing for his repose in eternity.—Tr.]


[1][1 Samuel 31:1. The Partcp. is found also in the Syr. and Chald. (“the Phil. were breaking out in war”). The parallel passage, 1 Chronicles 10:1, has the Perf., which Wellh. prefers here on the ground that the statement is too important to be made in the form of an adjectival sentence; but the principal thought in the mind of the writer was Saul’s death, not the fact of the battle.—Tr.]

[2][1 Samuel 31:1. Erdmann: “And there fell down slain men,” which is so far better, as the Eng. A. V. seems to represent all the men of Israel as falling down slain. But this general, indefinite phrase, would not be strange in Heb.—Tr.]

[3][1 Samuel 31:2. On the form of the verb omission of the i in the Hiph. Impf. see Ew. § 232) c 2. Ges. § 53.3, Rem. 4. Green § 94 c. The other examples of this shortening (which is regular in Aramaic) are 1 Samuel 14:22; Jeremiah 9:2—Tr.]

[4][1 Samuel 31:2. Sept. writes these names Aminadab and Melchisa, which are misreadings of the text. The difference of pronunciation in the second name (e instead of our masoretic a) is to be noticed.—Tr.]

[5][1 Samuel 31:3. Fully: “The archers (or, throwers), men with the bow,” in which the אֲנָשִׁים (omitted in 1 Chronicles 10:3) makes a grammatical difficulty. But, as its harshness will account for its omission in Chron., and we could not well account for its presence here by clerical error, it is better to retain it as a phrase explanatory of מוֹרים, which Chron. also explains by the word “bow” = “throwers with the bow.”—Wellh. conjectures that תוֹרֶה is not connected with יָרָה, but = מַעֲרָה and means any “caster,” coming to the Hebrews from the Phœnicians.—Tr.]

[6][1 Samuel 31:4. The verb. “thrust through” is not found in 1 Chronicles 10:4, and Wellh. proposes to omit it here because Saul could not in any case hope to escape this fate at the hands of the enemy. But Saul asks only that he may not be slain by the enemy. Bertheau’s view that the word is here a copyist’s erroneous repetition of the preceding “thrust through” is replied to by Thenius: if Saul had only feared capture, we should have had in the text besides the “come” some such word as “seize.”—Tr.]

[7][1 Samuel 31:6. Instead of גּם several MSS. and one Targum. MS. (De Rossi) read וְגַם “and also all his men.” The substitution of “all his house” in 1 Chronicles 10:6, for “all his men” does not warrant us in changing this text. Our phrase is not to be considered as a “slight exaggeration,” nor as foreign to our author (as, namely, a weakening of the tragic impression made by the simple truth), but as a general phrase = his whole army, not unusual among historical writers.—Tr.]

[8][1 Samuel 31:7. Instead of “on the other side” or “beyond,” Erdmann renders “on the side of,” which conveys the sense here, though it is not a literal rendering. The word עֵבֶר means “beyond” (so Gesen. against Fürst) and describes either side of a river according to the position of the speaker or writer; thus it may in some instances = the country on the side of a river or plain. As it apparently here describes the western side of the Jordan, it might seem that the narator lived east of the river (Bib. Com.); but this is not necessary, as the phrase may have the general meaning above stated.—Tr.]

[9][1 Samuel 31:9. Whether they sent messengers (in which case the Qal would be the appropriate form of the verb) or the head and armour (as the Piel of the text would indicate) is doubtful.—Tr.]

[10][1 Samuel 31:9. There is no reason why we should assimilate the texts of Samuel and Chronicles here, reading אֶת (Chr.) for בֵית (Sam.). Some MSS., however, give the latter reading in 1 Chronicles 10:9, no doubt from the disposition to assimilate.—Tr.]

[11][1 Samuel 31:10. The Chald. has “suspended” צרב = Heb. תלא, which is found in 2 Samuel 21:12; the difference in the wording is not unnatural, and we need not read here הֹקִעוּ (from יקע “impale”) instead of תָּקְעוּ (Wellhausen).—Tr.]

[12][1 Samuel 31:10. On the supposition that this verse and 1 Chronicles 10:10 are both parts of a longer statement, various attempts have been made to re-establish the original complete text. Ewald (Gesch. III. 152 Rem.) inserts in our verse after “Ashtaroth” the words: “and his skull in the house of Dagon,” the Chronicler then inserting תקעו from the last clause. The difficulty in this attempt is not so much to account for the תקעו in Chron. (Wellh.), as to account for the omission of the clause in Sam. Why not state that Saul’s skull was hung up in the temple of Dagon? Wellhausen’s view that the “body” (נְּוִיָּה) and “skull” (נֻּלְנּלֶֹת) refer to the same fact is in itself not improbable; one account might use the general word “body,” the other might mention the most striking part, the “skull.” In that case the “Beth-Dagon” must be identified with the “wall of Bethshan” by supposing that the temple of Dagon was in Beth-Shan. This, however, is an improbable supposition, and there remains the view that the two texts were not originally identical, but that the two accounts vary by mentioning different circumstances in the general fact. Wellhausen also holds that the two verses are not constructed from one original text.—Observe that instead of the גְּוִיַּה of Samuel, Chron. has גּוּפָה, perhaps in obedience to a change in good usage.—Tr.]

[13][See “Text. and Grammat.”—Tr.]

[14][See “Text. and Gramm.” where Erdmann’s translation: “on the side of the plain and on the side of Jordan” is accepted as conveying the sense. But the ordinary rendering “beyond Jordan” may be retained (as in Eng. A. V.) by supposing that the panic was so great as to extend to the other side of the river, and that the Philistines temporarily occupied the transjordanic cities. Similarly the people “beyond the plain” were panic-struck and fled.—Tr.]

[15]The sing. בית with a plu. subst. in plu. sense as in Exodus 6:14.

[16][This is thought by the Bib. Comm. to be the famous temple of Venus at Askelon.—Tr.]

[17][Other supposed cases of burning of corpses are Amos 6:10; 2 Chronicles 16:14; Jeremiah 34:5, of which the two last, however, refer to spice-burnings, and the first may be rendered “his uncle and his kinsman,” or the cremation may express the extreme suffering and religious declension of the nation.—Tr.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/1-samuel-31.html. 1857-84.
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