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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 31

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-7


1 Samuel 31:1. “In Mount Gilboa.” Most likely the actual battle took place on the plain, and the Israelites sought refuge on the mountain.

1 Samuel 31:3. “Sore wounded.” Hebrew scholars generally translate here sore afraid, or he was alarmed or trembled greatly.

1 Samuel 31:3. “He was sore afraid.” The armourbearer was responsible for the king’s life. Jewish traditions say that this man was Doeg.

1 Samuel 31:6. “All his men.” In 1 Chronicles 10:6 it is “all his house.” “Certainly Abner, who was no doubt in the battle, had not fallen, but that is not inconsistent with the statement, since he, as Saul’s general, 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.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 31:7. “The men of Israel on the other side,” etc. “The plain is the lowland between Mount Gilboa and Little Hermon, the continuation of the plain of Jezreel, into which the battle passed.… The Jordan with its west bank terrain formed the border. Those who from the station of the narrator (which we must take with Kiel to be the battlefield) dwelt beyond, that is, opposite him on the mountain terrain beside the plain and in the Jordan flats” (Erdmann) were those who fled. “Came and dwelt.” Not immediately; but this district eventually fell into their hands.



I. The culminating calamity of many resulting from the answering of a self-willed prayer. The unanswered request of a child by his parent is often the greatest act of kindness that parent can bestow; unhappy, indeed, would that child be who had all he asked for, and no parent who has any regard for only the bodily life of his offspring ever thinks of granting all their requests. And with parents whose concern for their children extends to their intellectual and moral well-being it is often needful to deny more petitions than they grant. It is exactly so with men and God; if men had at all times received from Him all that their ignorance and wickedness desired the human race would before now have become extinct through its own sin and consequent misery. But as the father of the prodigal did not refuse the request of his wayward son, but let him taste the fruit of having what he demanded, so God sometimes answers the self-willed prayers both of individuals and of nations, that they may know from experience whether they or God know best. As the swine-herding in the far country was the outcome of the answer to “Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me,” so was this fatal day on Gilboa the outcome of the answer to “Nay, but we will have a king.” “I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath.” (Hosea 13:11.) So must it always be with those who will have what God would rather not give.

II. A calamity involving both the innocent and the guilty. One man, at least, who fell at Gilboa was innocent of both the national and individual sin which brought the judgment. The king of Israel had forsaken God, and therefore the once brave man trembled and fled before those whom—with the consciousness of God on his side—he would have faced and defied, and so the heathen foe triumphed over God’s anointed. And whatever may have been the character of the others who fell, Jonathan’s fate was not the result of his personal transgression but of his father’s sin, and says to us in plain language that no sinner harms only himself, and that the good often in this world suffer because of the bad. All relationships of life have some influence upon our earthly destiny, but none is so potent for good or ill as that which the parent holds to his child. But if Jonathan is a sad illustration of this truth, he is also a cheering proof that if a son must suffer for his father’s character he need not walk in that father’s footsteps.

III. A calamity which failed to change the heart of the greatest sufferer in it. The last act of Saul is in keeping with the one in which he first openly departed from God. His disobedience in the early part of his reign proclaimed a man who would choose his own method of life rather than the Divine purpose concerning him, and even this last and crushing judgment failed to break his self-will, and he who would not leave the ordering of his life to God would neither let Him ordain the manner of his death. So also as the prominent thought in the matter of the Amalekites was not the sin against God but the disgrace before men, now it is not the retribution which awaited his spirit, but the dishonour which might come to his body. It is the same man who fears now nothing so much as the sword of the uncircumcised, as formerly dreaded most the loss of position among his subjects (1 Samuel 15:30).


1 Samuel 31:2.

1. God would hereby complete the vexation of Saul in his dying moments and the judgment that was to be executed upon his house. If the family must fall, Jonathan must fall with it.
2. He would hereby make David’s way to the crown more clear and open. For though Jonathan himself would have cheerfully resigned all his title and interest to him, yet it is very probable that many of the people would have made use of his name for the support of the house of Saul …
3. God would hereby show us that the difference between good and bad is to be made in the other world, not in this.—Henry.

1 Samuel 31:4. In this way did Saul shrink from adversity; he went forth glorying in his majesty, the anointed of the Lord, king over the chosen people of God; the battle turns against him, he is sore-wounded of the archers and … seeks in death a cure for the anguish of wounds and the shame of defeat.… What would the world now have been if it had always been said, “because the archers smite me sore, and the battle goes 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.—Sydney Smith.

The evil spirit had said, the evening before, “To morrow thou shalt be with me;” and now Saul hasteth to make the devil no liar; rather than fail, he gives himself his own mittimus. O the woful extremities of a despairing soul, plunging him ever into a greater mischief, to avoid the less! He might have been a patient in another’s violence, and faultless; now, while he will needs act the Philistine’s part upon himself, he lived and died a murderer: the case is deadly, when the prisoner breaks the jail, and will not stay for his delivery; and though we may not pass sentence upon such a soul, yet upon the fact we may: the soul may possibly repent in the parting; the act is heinous, and such as, without repentance, kills the soul.—Bp. Hall.

Verses 8-13


1 Samuel 31:9. “And sent.” Hebrew scholars here read sent them, i.e., the weapons and the head of Saul and probably those of his sons.

1 Samuel 31:10. “Ashtaroth.” The plural form of Ashtoreth, the principal female divinity of the Phœnicians, as Baal was the principal male divinity, identical with the Astarte of the Greeks and Romans, who was by many ancient writers identified with the goddess Venus, as well as also with the planet of that name. (See Smith’s Bib. Diet.) “Beth-shan.” The present Beisan, in the Jordan valley, twelve miles south of the Sea of Galilee and four miles west of the Jordan. The royal heads, we learn from 1 Chronicles 10:10, were fixed in the temple of Dagon. “Thus the trophies of their great victory were divided among their several deities.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 31:11. “Jabesh-Gilead.” See on 1 Samuel 11:1.

1 Samuel 31:12. “Went all night.” “Considering that Bethshan is about three hours distance, and by a narrow upland passage to the west of the Jordan, the whole being a journey of about twelve miles, they must have made all expedition to travel thither, to carry off the headless bodies and return to their own side of the Jordan in the course of a single night.” (Jamieson.) “Burnt them.” This was not a Hebrew custom, and was either resorted to to prevent any further insult from the Philistines or, more likely, seeing that only the flesh was burned, because of the mangled and decomposed condition of the corpses.

1 Samuel 31:13. “A tree,” rather the tamarisk, the article indicating that the site was well-known. David afterwards caused the bones to be removed to Saul’s family burial place (2 Samuel 21:11-14).



I. The courageous impulses of grateful hearts. Gratitude may be almost regarded as an instinct of human nature, for it springs up spontaneously in the breast of man in answer to benefits received. He who does not experience this emotion must be hardened below the brute, for even some of the lower animals will remember benefits conferred, and love him who has done them a service, But the strength and length of the gratitude will depend much on the disposition and character. All men are prone to forget benefits conferred long ago, and only true and loyal hearts keep their memory green, and are found willing to recognise them at their own risk. Many years had passed since Saul earned the gratitude of the men of Jabesh Gilead, and his later life had tended rather to efface than to perpetuate the recollection of that act of bravery. And very considerable must have been the danger which they now encountered in rendering. him this last service—the only one which could now be rendered to one who had put himself beyond any other. But their gratitude and courage were equal to the occasion, and shed the only ray of light that brightens this dark picture.

II. The lasting influence of a good deed. The life that had begun in so much promise had ended in gloom, and it seems almost impossible to recognise in this fearful and despairing man the brave soldier-king by whom, at Jabesh, “the Lord had wrought salvation in Israel” (1 Samuel 11:13). But in this day of his shame, and when he is justly reaping the reward of his evil deeds, this good one is not to be forgotten but receives its reward. Truly,

“The evil that men do lives after them,”

but so also, happily, does the good.


This book began with the birth of Samuel, but now it ends with the death of Saul, the comparing of which two together will teach us to prefer the honour that comes from God before any of the honours which this world pretends to have the disposal of.—Henry.

In the greatness and the reverse of the house of Saul is the culmination and catastrophe of the tribe of Benjamin. The Christian fathers used to dwell on the old prediction which describes the character of that tribe, “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and in the evening he shall devour the spoil.” These words well sum up the strange union of fierceness and of gentleness, of sudden resolves for good or evil, which run, as hereditary qualities do often run, through the whole history of that frontier clan. Such were its wild adventures in the times of the Judges; such was Saul, its first king; such was Shemei, of the house of Saul, in his bitterness and his repentance; such was the divided allegiance of the tribe to the rival houses of Judah and Ephraim; such was the union of tenderness and vindictiveness in the character of Mordecai and Esther, if not actual descendants of Shemei and Kish, as they appear in the history of Saul, at least claiming to be of the same tribe, and reckoning among the list of their ancestors the same renowned names. And is it a mere fancy to trace with those same Christian writers the last faint likeness of this mixed history, when, after a lapse of many centuries, the tribe once more for a moment rises to our view; in the second Saul, also of the tribe of Benjamin? Saul of Tarsus, who, like the first, was at one time moved by a zeal bordering almost upon frenzy, and who, like the first, startled all his contemporaries by appearing among the Prophets the herald of the faith which once he destroyed; but, unlike the first, persevered in that faith to the end the likeness in the Christian Church, not of what Saul was, but of what he might have been.—Stanley.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-31.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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