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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 31

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-13

DEFEAT AND DEATH OF SAUL (1 Samuel 31:1-13.).


SAUL AND HIS SONS SLAIN (1 Samuel 31:1-7).

1 Samuel 31:1, 1 Samuel 31:2

The Philistines fought. Literally it is a participle present, "the Philistines are warring," as if it were a mere resumption of 1 Samuel 28:1. In the battle fought on the day following Saul's visit to the witch the Israelites were defeated, and fell in large numbers slain in Mount Gilboa, either because the Philistines had attacked them there, or because, after fighting in the valley of Jezreel, they had made on its steep ridges their last defence. Among those thus slain were the three sons of Saul mentioned in 1 Samuel 14:49, where see note.

1 Samuel 31:3, 1 Samuel 31:4

The archers. Literally, as in the margin, "shooters, men with bows." As the first word would equally apply to men who threw javelins, the explanation is added to make the meaning clear. Hit him. Literally, "found him, i.e. found out his position, and came up to where he was. He was sore wounded. Rather, "he was sore distressed." In Deuteronomy 2:25 the verb is rendered "be in anguish." The meaning is that Saul, finding himself surrounded by these archers, and that he could neither escape nor come to close quarters with them, and die fighting, ordered his armour bearer to kill him, that he might be spared the degradation of being slain by "uncircumcised" heathen. Abuse me. This verb is translated mock in Jeremiah 38:19. "Maltreat" would be a better rendering in both places, and also in Judges 19:25, where, too, the word occurs. Its exact meaning is to practise upon another all that passion, lust, anger, or malice dictate. Probably Saul thought that they would treat him as they had previously treated Samson (Judges 16:21-25).

1 Samuel 31:5, 1 Samuel 31:6

His armour bearer. The Jewish tradition says that he was Doeg the Edomite, and that the sword on which Saul fell was that with which he had massacred the priests. This is not very probable; but whoever he was, his horror on being asked to slay his master, and his devotion to him, are deserving of admiration. All his men. In 1 Chronicles 10:6" all his house." But Ishbosheth and Abner survived, and the meaning probably is not that his whole army, but that his personal attendants, all those posted round him, fell to a man, fighting bravely for their king, as the Scots fought round King James V. at Flodden Field. As suicide was very rare among the Israelites, the death of Saul is made more intensely tragic by the anguish which drove him thus to die by his own hand.


1 Samuel 31:7

The men of Israel. The term is here applied to non-combatants, while in 1 Samuel 31:1 it meant those following Saul in arms. On the other side of the valley. I.e. of Jezreel, and so all the Israelites inhabiting the tribes of Issachar, Zabulon, and Naphthali, and the region generally to the north. In 1 Chronicles 10:7 this flight is confined to the inhabitants of the valley, one of the most fertile districts of Palestine; but probably the statement made here, that a very large extent of country was the prize of victory, is the more correct. On the other side Jordan. This phrase constantly means the eastern side of the Jordan, nor need we doubt but that the people living near it abandoned their homes and fled; for the river would form but a slight protection for them in this northerly part of its course. Still the conquests on the eastern bank of the Jordan must have been confined to a small district near the lake of Tiberias, as Abner was able to place Ishbosheth as king at Mahanaim, a town about twenty miles to the east of the river, and not far from Jabez-Gilead. South of Jezreel the Philistines made no conquests, and thus Ephraim, Benjamin, and Judah remained free, and of course Gilead, and the most part of the region beyond Jordan (see 2 Samuel 2:8-11).


1 Samuel 31:8

It came to pass on the morrow. The previous verse gave us the results of the victory as they were in course of time developed. We now return to the narrative of the battle and its immediate consequences. As the spoiling was deferred till the morrow, the struggle must have been obstinately contested, and decided only just before nightfall.

1 Samuel 31:9, 1 Samuel 31:10

They cut off his head. This was probably done not simply in retaliation for what had happened to their champion Goliath, but in accordance with the customs of ancient warfare. The fierce joy of the Philistines over the fallen Saul proves how great had been their fear of him, and how successful he had been in breaking their yoke off Israel's neck. Had he still had David with him the victory would assuredly have remained on his side. They put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth. Hebrew, "of the Ashtaroth." Whether it was divided among the various shrines of Astarte, or whether it was all placed in her famous temple at Askelon, described by Herodotus (1:105) as the most ancient of the fanes of the Syrian Venus, is uncertain. The former view agrees best with the Hebrew text and with what is said in 1 Chronicles 10:10, where we have the additional information that they suspended Saul's head in the temple of Dagon. They fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan, as also the bodies of his sons (1 Chronicles 10:12). Beth-shan or Scythopolis lies about four miles from the Jordan on the west, and twelve miles south of the lake of Tiberias. It is almost in a straight line to the west of Mahanaim, and must have been at once occupied by the Philistines, and as they hung the bodies of the fallen king and his sons on its wall, they evidently intended to retain it.


1 Samuel 31:11

Jabesh-Gilead. Eusebius describes this place as situated on the road from Pella to Gerasa, and therefore it would be much nearer the Jordan than Mahanaim, and probably was not more than twelve or fourteen miles distant from Beth-shan. The people there had not forgotten how bravely Saul had saved them, and now showed their gratitude by rescuing his remains from disgrace.

1 Samuel 31:12, 1 Samuel 31:13

They burnt them. Cremation, though highly honourable among classical nations, is here mentioned for the first time in Holy Scripture, and was probably resorted to on this occasion to insure the bodies of Saul and his sons against further maltreatment, as, if buried, the Philistines might have made the attempt to get them again into their power. Some suppose that the burning of the dead was afterwards practised by the Jews, and quote in its favour 2 Chronicles 16:14; Isaiah 33:12; Jeremiah 31:40; Jeremiah 34:5; Amos 6:10, but these passages bear a different interpretation. After the exile, interment was the sole method of disposing of the dead among the Jews, and in the Talmud cremation is condemned as a heathen practice. The burial of the bones of Saul and his sons proves that their bodies here were really burnt. Under a tree. Hebrew, "under the tamarisk," the famous tree of that species at Jabesh. It was under one tamarisk that Saul commanded the massacre of the priests (1 Samuel 22:6), and now his bones are placed in rest beneath another. Perhaps the people remembered the king's fondness for trees. For the final fate of these relics see 2 Samuel 21:12-14. They fasted seven days (see Genesis 1:10). The time of mourning was thirty days for Aaron (Numbers 20:29) and for Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8). The Talmudic rule is strict mourning for seven days, less strict for the next twenty-three, in all thirty; and for a father or mother mourning was continued for a year. The fasting was mourning of the strictest kind, and proves that the people of Jabesh-Gilead honored to the utmost their deliverer.


1 Samuel 31:1-6

Judgment at last.

The facts are—

1. In the battle at Gilboa the men of Israel suffer a defeat from the Philistines.

2. His sons being slain, the conflict presses hard on Saul.

3. Dreading to fall by the hand of a Philistine, and failing to find death through the hand of his armour bearer, he falls on his own sword, his example being followed by his armour bearer. Here we have the closing scene in the tragedy of Saul's life, verifying the prediction of Samuel. Our heart mourns over an end so sad, and as we read the narrative we are sensible of a strange pity for this once promising but now ruined man. Notice—

I. THE PRESSURE OF EVENTS WORKING OUT A RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT. Connecting this defeat and death of Saul with the early prediction of Samuel (1 Samuel 15:23, 1 Samuel 15:28, 1 Samuel 15:29) and the recent solemn declaration in the cave at Endor (1 Samuel 28:16-20), we see how, as by an unseen hand, Saul was urged on to his doom. For instead of making terms with the enemy, or fleeing from the scene of conflict, he, knowing his doom, drew up his men, pressed on to the thickest battle, became a conspicuous mark for archers, and drew around himself and heirs to the throne the fiercest of the assault. We cannot but observe how the Philistine force was unrestrained by the power which checked Pharaoh s army at the Red Sea, weakened Amalek when the hands of Moses were raised (Exodus 17:11-13), inspired terror in the army opposed to Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:15-23), and generally put fear in the hearts of Israel's foes. Samuel's words make clear to us that Providence was leaving Saul to the impulses which led him to death, and withholding from the Philistines all that would otherwise have impeded their way to victory. It is a fearful thing thus to fall into the hands of the living God. The truth brought out here is, that though judgment is often for unrevealed reasons long deferred, yet events are so disposed as to concentrate irresistibly on the enforcement of the penalty of sin. Men pursue a crooked and unholy course for years, during which time justice seems to linger; but the time comes on when, as by infatuation, they go straight into the concurrences of events which Providence has permitted for their downfall. So also fell Babylon, Rome, and other nations, made drunk with the wine of the wrath of God (Isaiah 63:6). So likewise, under the pressure of Providence, will the sea give up its dead, and all that are in their graves come forth, to receive according to the deeds done in the body (John 5:28, Joh 5:29; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:13).

II. THE SINS OF PARENTS CUT OFF THE HOPES OF SONS. We feel deep sympathy with Jonathan that he, the brightest and best of Israel's manhood, should perish in the calamity brought on by his father's persistent impenitence. Brave, gallant son, knowing and lamenting the failings of his parent, and the woes his conduct was bringing on the kingdom, with true filial piety he stands by him and the kingdom to the end! It was better to die, if so God willed it, than to live and share in the joys of even a David's friendship. The fond hopes of seeing David enthroned over a happy and prosperous people after his father's natural decease (1 Samuel 20:12-17; 1 Samuel 23:16-18) were rudely blighted. It is the old sad story of the sin of one bringing sorrow and suffering to many innocent. The fearful havoc made by sin! The awful responsibility of our conduct! Millions die before their proper time, and a wail of woe rises daily from myriads of hearts because of the transgression of parents.

III. A SAD END OF LIFE IN KEEPING WITH ITS ORDINARY COURSE. There is a singular blending of diverse thought and motive in the last utterances and acts of Saul. He knew his doom was at hand; and yet, partly under a sense of utter wretchedness which made him willing to die, and partly from the patriotic feeling that his unwillingness to face his country's foe should not be added to his crimes, he goes forth to battle. Then, also, when pressed in battle and in great straits, was there not a sense of misery, a consciousness of Divine abandonment, which made the continuance of life a burden no longer to be endured, blended with the thought precious to the Hebrew, that he was one of the chosen race, allied by nationality with the great Messianic purpose, and that, as such, it must never be said that Israel's king was abused by the touch of the "uncircumcised" alien? In this commingling of light and darkness, moral quickenings and mad infatuation, we have an analogue to his conduct all through his sad career. It is not for us to say whether there was not in those last sad moments, as he lay on the earth, a melting of that heart which had so long striven against God. As in many other instances, there is no light thrown on the inner experience of the soul in its most sacred relations to God. The case of the thief on the cross may suggest the possibility of a cry from the heart to which the mercy that endureth forever responds. But it is for us to stand in awe, and take to ourselves the solemn lesson of this sad and perverted life.

IV. A QUESTION AS TO THE MORAL CHARACTER OF SUICIDE. Willet, in his 'Harmonie upon the first Booke of Samuel,' quotes authorities pro and con on the general question and on Saul's act; but without entering on a wide subject, it may suffice to note that moral cowardice is ordinarily the cause of suicide, and that it is a violation of the prerogatives of God. As we have indicated, there may have been considerations of a semi-religious character which influenced Saul in desiring not to be slain by the "uncircumcised," and to him it was certain that death was at hand. Nevertheless, no private feeling, no relief from dishonour, can justify a forestalling, in the matter of life and death, of the course of Providence. The principle involved is most vital, and when once the door for its violation is opened, the whole fabric of society is sapped at its foundation.

General lessons:

1. It is instructive to contrast the beginning and end of lives, and note how by the action of a deceitful heart the fatal turn is taken toward disgrace and despair.

2. Although some parents ruin their sons by their sins, yet we all do them wrong and damage in so far as sin taints our life.

3. Although God cuts off the hopes of the good by the calamities which come through the sins of others, yet in his mercy he raises them to a purer and safer joy.

4. Whatever judgments God brings should be submitted to with resignation.

1 Samuel 31:7-13

The final issues of life a criterion of worth.

The facts are—

1. The defeat of Saul is followed by the general flight of the men of Israel from the neigbbouring cities, and the occupation of these by the Philistines.

2. The bodies of Saul and of his sons being found, the Philistines strip the king's of his armour, publish the fact in the houses of idols, and dishonour him on the wall of Beth-shan.

3. The men of Jabesh-Gilead, hearing of this, rescue the bodies and bury them at Jabesh amidst much mourning. The historian closes the narrative concerning Saul's reign by a reference to the immediate result of the defeat on the adjacent cities, and to the barbarous treatment of Saul's body. The people who had demanded a king, and who were proud of his powerful bodily presence, were now to learn in saddest form how much better it is to wait the time of God, and to trust rather to righteousness of national life than to physical force and martial display. The people and the king were at fault, and the judgment falls on both. We here see—

I. THAT LIFE'S WORTH IS TESTED BY ITS FINAL RESULT. The public life of Saul at one time promised well for himself and Israel. Every aid which wise advice and holy influence could render had been freely bestowed by Samuel, the man of God, and the promise of Divine help was given on condition of obedience to the Divine voice. Although troubles came in consequence of disobedience, and thus indicated that his life was proving a failure, there were doubtless men so blind to the signs of the times as to refer the troubles to accidents and unforeseen circumstances, and to hope still that there would be a turn in the tide of affairs which would insure a prosperous reign. But the panic which came on Israel on Saul's death and the occupation of cities by the detested Philistine must have made clear to the most prejudiced that his public career was disastrous and unrighteous. The issue of a monarch's reign should be the moral and material elevation of the people, the improved administration of law, the greater security of life and property, a prevalence of the blessings of internal peace and freedom from foreign oppression, and a higher degree of national influence. The reverse of this was the outcome of Saul's life. By thus looking at the result of life's labours we may form an estimate of the worth of monarchs, statesmen, merchants, and professed Christians. Have men blessed their fellow creatures with permanent good? Is the great enemy, sin, more in occupation of country, home, and the soul at the end than at the beginning? The day is coming when every man's work will be tried of "what sort it is" (1 Corinthians 3:13). Can we face that test? Will the end be better than the beginning? Dare some men try to answer this question in relation to their spiritual condition and the spiritual effect of their personal influence.

II. THAT THE APPARENT TRIUMPH OF THE WICKED IS ONE OF THE SADDEST CONSEQUENCES OF THE SINS OF GOD'S PEOPLE. The triumph of the "uncircumcised" was complete when, stripping the body of Israel's king, they carried his head in savage delight to the house of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:10), nailed his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan, and proclaimed their victory in honour of their gods. It was this result following on the death of Saul and defeat of Israel that seemed to be an occasion of so much sorrow and dread to David (2 Samuel 1:20). The fond hopes cherished by the pious on the solemn day of repentance and consecration at Mizpeh and Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7:9-12) were now rudely destroyed. Heathenism gloried in its strength; while Israel, smitten with fear, mourned in bitterness of soul. Ignorance, barbarity, idolatry took a new lease of power, and Jehovah's name was dishonoured in the eyes of the nations. The death of a king is comparatively a small matter, the wasting sweep of war over fair fields and flourishing cities is a material calamity; but for irreligion to flourish, debasing religious rites to manifest all their vileness, and the cause of purity, truth, and righteousness to be made.to suffer even apparent defeat, this was the most fearful consequence of Saul's unhappy reign. All actions in public and private individuals are to be judged by their bearing on the honour of God's name and the extension of the kingdom of Christ. Does a monarch's or a statesman's policy give greater scope for whatever is alien to the supremacy of Christ in heart, conduct, and home? If so it is very criminal. Does our private life give occasion for the enemies of the cross to blaspheme? He who so lives and dies as to strengthen the hold of ignorance, superstition, immorality, and anti-Christian principles on the world is the enemy of his country and of God. When men professedly in the Church of God, as Saul was in Israel, so become unfaithful to their privileges as to give an apparent triumph to the irreligious and profane, they, in whatever degree this is true, perpetrate an injury, the spiritual issues of which are beyond all calculation.

III. THAT THE MOST TERRIBLE TRIALS MAY GIVE RISE TO OCCASIONAL DEEDS OF HEROISM. Various were the effects of Saul's death on Israel. On all there must have come that inexpressible anguish which in some degree David sought to express in his beautiful "song of the bow" (2 Samuel 1:18-27). But there were faithful men who could not yield to inaction while God's name was being dishonoured and Israel, in the person of the king, covered with ignominy. The men of Jabesh-Gilead had not forgotten the day when, in the prime of his strength, and bidding fair to defend his country in the fear of God, Saul had come to their rescue and had aroused the patriotism of the nation (1 Samuel 11:4-11). To them he was more than king; he was hero and friend, and doubtless their children had used his name as a household word. And now dead, forsaken, mutilated, the tall, majestic form exposed to heathen scorn—should they suffer it? Never! "All the valiant men arose." With set purpose, at risk of life, they bring away the mangled remains, and sorrowfully lay them low in the place that witnessed his early heroism. Thus do we see how misfortune, sorrow, and death call forth the nobler qualities of men, and bring to light hidden sympathies and secret friends. There was some hope for Israel yet. The terrible disasters of life stir up the energies of the faithful few, and though they cannot at once redeem all that others have lost, they can reassert the supremacy of love and the nobler sentiments of life, and so pave the way for a better order of things. Men in Israel revived a little from despair when they heard of this heroism and affection. Was there not a darker night and more complete apparent defeat of Israel's high purpose in the world when another and more sacred body was exposed "a spectacle to angels and to men"? Then also one was found who dared to identify his reputation and all that was dear with respect and love for that holy body. Joseph of Arimathea was morally more heroic than the men of Jabesh-Gilead. In similar ways the disasters of life have drawn forth the heroism of many who could not endure to see the "uncircumcised" triumph. Thus light shines forth in darkness, assuring us that in the long conflict with evil the morning of an endless day full of the joy of the ransomed will dawn on the sorrowful earth.

General lessons:—

1. To form a just estimate of our life we should not regard our personal enjoyments as pain. but have chief respect to the ultimate effect of it on our home and country.

2. Wicked men find encouragement to believe in their false principles when men professing opposite principles are untrue to them.

3. We ought to consider how much of the power of irreligious principles and practices over men is due to our want of consistency.

4. It will be blessed for us and our survivors if friends are able to commit our body to the grave with affection and gratitude unalloyed with painful memories.


1 Samuel 31:1-6. (GILBOA.)

The death of Saul.

"So Saul died" (1Sa 31:6; 2 Samuel 1:1-16; 1 Chronicles 10:1-14.). While the events mentioned in the preceding chapter were taking place in the south, and even before their occurrence, "the great drama so closely connected with them was being played out" in the north. On the morrow of Saul's consultation of "the witch of Endor" the Philistines marched across the plain, with their archers, chariots, and horsemen (2 Samuel 1:6), and attacked the army of Israel. The issue appears to have been soon decided. "The men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in Gilboa," up the slopes of which they had been pursued. "And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and his sons," who fell fighting around him. Hard pressed and found by the archers, he trembled ("was sore wounded," A.V.) before them, seeing no way to escape falling into their hands; and (as the night set in), with the reckless courage of despair with which he had fought, his armour bearer having refused to slay him, he "took the sword and fell upon it." His armour bearer followed his example. "At that moment a wild Amalekite, lured probably to the field by the hope of spoil, came up and finished the work which the arrows of the Philistines and the sword of Saul him self had all but accomplished" (Stanley). "A remarkable dispensation. As the curse on Amalek was accomplished by Saul, so that on Saul was accomplished by Amalek" (Hengstenberg). Or, perhaps, the story of the Amalekite was false, and told to ingratiate himself with David and obtain a reward for the diadem and bracelet of which he had stripped the fallen king. In either case, self-willed to the last, scorning "these uncircumcised," and more concerned about his own honour than the honour of God, he rushed upon his own destruction.

"O Saul!

How ghastly didst thou look, on thine own sword
Expiring in Gilboa, from that hour
Ne'er visited with rain from heaven nor dew"

(Dante, 'Purg.' 12.).

Observe that -


1. The full desert Of sin might be justly inflicted immediately on its commission. But in a state of probation space is allowed for repentance and motives afforded to induce it. Yet, if sin be persisted in, guilt increases and judgment becomes more inevitable and severe. "He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1). "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). "The wages may be deferred or may not be consciously received, but they are paid without stint sooner or later; the fatal consequences may not always equally appear, but they never fail in some form or other."

2. Although inflicted by the free act of man, it is not less the result of the operation of retributive justice. "Saul took the sword and fell upon it;" but he "died for his transgression which he committed against the Lord; therefore the Lord slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David, the son of Jesse" (1 Chronicles 10:14).

3. The operation of the law of retribution, so manifest in history and to observation, shows the evil of sin in the sight of God, and is a solemn warning against its indulgence. Even repentance may come too late to avert its consequences in this life.

"Look to thyself then, deal with sin no more,
Lest he that saves, against thee shuts the door" (Bunyan).

II. SELF-WILL NATURALLY CULMINATES IN SELF-DESTRUCTION. All self-will, in opposition to the will of God, is a self-injury (Proverbs 8:36); and not less so because the sinner seeks what he falsely imagines to be for his good. Its tendency is ever towards destruction, and, unless checked in its course, it infallibly conducts to that end. It is a special and aggravated form of it when, in order to escape the misery and shame which are experienced or expected, he directly and voluntarily takes away his own life. Suicide is—

1. Contrary to the natural instinct of self-preservation and a properly enlightened and regulated self-love.

2. An act of unfaithfulness to the trust that is committed to man by God in the bestowment of life, and of refusal to fulfil the duties that he has ordained in life, which cannot be rightly surrendered or left without his consent nor until the time he has appointed. "Pythagoras forbids us to abandon the station or post of life without the orders of our commander, that is, of God" (Cicero). "'Why do I tarry on earth, and not hasten hence to come to you?' 'Not so, my son,' he replied; 'unless that God, whose temple is all this which you behold, shall liberate you from the imprisonment of the body, you can have no admission to this place'" ('Scipio's Dream').

3. An act of cowardice in the presence of real or imaginary evils, whatever reckless bravery it may exhibit with respect to death and that which lies beyond. "To die and thus avoid poverty, or love, or anything painful is not the part of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is cowardice to avoid trouble; and the suicide does not undergo death because it is honourable, but in order to avoid evil" (Aristotle, 'Ethics,' book 7. 1 Samuel 7:1-17). In Saul it was "the act of completed despair."

4. Expressly prohibited by the Divine command: "Thou shalt not kill. In accordance with this Paul said to the Philippian gaoler, when "he would have killed himself," "Do thyself no harm" (Acts 16:28).

5. Virtually forbidden by all the exhortations of the New Testament to endure affliction with patience and submission to the will of God. "Suicide is the result of impatience" (see Paley, 'Mor. Philippians,' book 4.Philippians 3:1-21; Philippians 3:1-21).

6. Injurious to others in many ways: inflicting much distress, teaching pernicious lessons, setting a bad example. It is "as unfavourable to human talents and resources as it is to human virtues. We should never have dreamt of the latent power and energy of our nature but for the struggle of great minds with great afflictions, nor known the limits of ourselves nor man's dominion over fortune. What would the world now have been if it had always been said, Because the archers smite me sore, and the battle goeth against me, I will die?" (Sydney Smith).

7. Condemned by the example of good men, who have borne the heaviest calamities with holy courage, and sanctioned only by evil men, like Ahithophel and Judas. How far, indeed, Saul was in full possession of his faculties and responsible for his act, or what was his final destiny, is not stated. "It is evident that more arguments may be gathered of his condemnation than of his salvation; yet because nothing is expressly set down touching his state before God, it is better to leave it" (Willet).

"O mortal men! be wary how ye judge:
For we, who see our Maker, know not yet
The number of the chosen" ('Par.' 20.).

"There appears to be but one efficient means by which the mind can be armed against the temptations to suicide, because there is but one that can support it against every evil of life—practical religion, belief in the providence of God, confidence in his wisdom, hope in his goodness" (Dymond, 'Essays').

"Nor love thy life, nor bate; but what thou liv'st
Live well, how long or short, permit to Heaven"

('Par. Lost,' bk. 10.).

III. THE EVIL EXAMPLE OF MEN IN HIGH STATION IS ONLY TOO FAITHFULLY IMITATED. "And when his armour bearer," etc. (1 Samuel 31:5). He had faithfully fought by his side to the last, and feared to take away his life (of which he was appointed guardian); perhaps out of reverence for his sacred person; doubtless, also, he dreaded to fall alive into the hands of the Philistines and to be put to a shameful death by them; and now, incited by his example, "dares to do that to himself which to his king he durst not." Example is proverbially powerful. No one, especially if he occupy a position of power and influence, can do wrong without thereby inducing others to follow, who thus share his guilt and may not have equal excuse for their transgression. According to Jewish tradition the armour bearer was Doeg the Edomite (1 Samuel 22:18, 1 Samuel 22:19), "a partner before of his master's crimes, and now of his punishment." "That Saul and his armour bearer died by the same sword is, I think, sufficiently evident. 'Draw thy sword,' says he to him, 'and thrust me through;' which when he refused, 'Saul took the sword and fell upon it.' What sword? (Not his own, for then the text would have said so.) Why, in the plain, natural, grammatical construction, the sword before mentioned must be the sword now referred to, that is, the armour bearer's. Saul and his executioner both fell by that very weapon with which they had before massacred the priests of God" (Delany).

IV. THE INNOCENT OFTEN SUFFER ALONG WITH THE GUILTY. "And the Philistines slew Jonathan," etc. (1 Samuel 31:2-6). It is impossible not to lament the untimely fate of the friend of David and of God. The sins of the father were visited upon the son. But let it be considered that—

1. God is the supreme Proprietor of every human life, and has a right to dispose of it as it pleases him. Moreover, "death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).

2. He has united men to each other in relations more or less intimate, whereby they necessarily affect each other for good as well as for evil.

3. The sufferings of the godly, in consequence of their connection with the wicked, serve many beneficent purposes. The death of Jonathan would deepen the impression of the severity of the Divine judgment on the house of Saul for disobedience, and be a perpetual warning. It also made David's accession to the throne clearer and more indisputable.

4. The godly cannot experi ence the Worst sufferings of the wicked—remorse, fearfulness, despair; and if some are called to an early death in the path of duty, they are only called a little earlier than others to their inheritance in "a better country, that is, a heavenly," an eternal kingdom.

"Joy past compare.; gladness unutterable;
Imperishable life of peace and love;
Exhaustless riches and unmeasured bliss."—D.

1 Samuel 31:7-10. (GILBOA.)

The chastisement of Israel.

The thunderstorm of which they were long ago warned (1 Samuel 12:18, 1 Samuel 12:25) had now burst upon the people of Israel. Since the capture of the ark they had not experienced so great a calamity, and in it the fatal results of their demand for a king were made manifest. Although the demand was evil, it contained an element of good, and was complied with by God in judgment mingled with mercy. "As no people can show a visible theocracy, so no monarchy can be accused, simply as such, of usurping the Divine prerogative. But still the transaction does involve a moral lesson, which lies at the foundation of all sound policy, condemning the abandonment of principle on the plea of expediency, and pointing by the example of Israel the doom of every nation that seeks safety and power in a course known to be wrong" (P. Smith, 'Ancient History'). They had their own way, yet the purpose of God was not defeated, but accomplished less directly, and in such a manner as to convince them of the folly of their devices, and exhibit his overruling wisdom and power. Whilst they pursued their course under a king "according to the will of man," their Divine King was preparing "a man after his own heart to be captain over his people" (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 12:22). When the end came David stood ready to occupy the throne, and, after a brief period of conflict and confusion, the whole nation, taught by experience, gladly received him as its ruler. This is the theocratic "argument" of the greater portion of the Book. In the terrible defeat of Israel we see—

I. THEIR IDOL BROKEN IN PIECES. "So Saul died," etc. "The men of Israel fled, and Saul and his sons were dead," etc. (1 Samuel 31:6, 1 Samuel 31:7). Men are apt to imagine that something else beyond what God has ordained is necessary to their welfare, to be impatient of his time, to attach an undue value to the expedients which in their imperfect knowledge and sinful desires they devise, to set their hearts upon earthly and visible objects, and depend upon them rather than upon "him who is invisible." This tendency finds expression in many ways, and embodies itself in many forms. And although God may permit such idols to continue for a time, he always overthrows them. When Israel made an idol of the ark it was given into the hands of the Philistines, and when they made an idol of "a king" (1 Samuel 8:5) he was slain. Their hope in him was bitterly disappointed, and inasmuch as he yeas (according to Divine prescience, though not by absolute necessity nor without personal guilt) a representation and reflection of their sin (worldliness, formalism, self-will), they were severely punished in him and by his instrumentality. How little did they gain, how much did they lose, by having their own way! "I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath" (Hosea 13:11). "Cease ye from man," etc.

II. THEIR CITIES FORSAKEN. "And when the men of Israel that were by the side of the plain" (west of the central branch of the valley of Jezreel, "opposite to the place of conflict, which the writer assumed as his standpoint"—Keil), "and by the side of the Jordan" (east of the plain, between Gilboa and the Jordan), "saw that the men of Israel" (who were engaged in the battle) "fled," etc. "they forsook the cities; and the Philistines came" (from that time onward) "and dwelt in them" (so that the whole of the northern part of the land fell into their hands). Instead of overcoming their enemies, they were overcome by them, driven from their homes, reduced to the most abject condition, and without any prospect of regaining by their own strength their lost possessions. "Your country is desolate," etc. (Isaiah 1:7). The peaceful government of Samuel gave them prosperity (1 Samuel 7:13, 1 Samuel 7:14); but the warlike rule of Saul, which they preferred, ended in their overthrow. "Sore distressed," like him (1 Samuel 28:15), whither should they turn for help? Men are deprived of all hope in themselves that they may "set their hope in God."

III. THEIR ENEMIES TRIUMPHANT. "And it came to pass on the morrow" (after the battle, which ended at nightfall) "when the Philistines came," etc. "And they cut off his head (as in the case of Goliath of Gath, and afterwards deposited it in the temple of Dagon, in Ashdod, 1 Chronicles 10:10; 1 Samuel 5:1), and sent (messengers bearing his head and armour) into the land of the Philistines round about, to proclaim the good tidings in their idol temples (to their idols) and among the people (2 Samuel 1:20). And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth (in Askelon), and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan" (Judges 1:27). It has been remarked of the Philistines that "so implacable was their enmity to the Israelites, that one would be almost tempted to think that they bad been created on purpose to be a thorn in their sides" (Russell, 'Connection,' History of the Philistines). Their victory was the victory of their gods; the defeat of Israel the dishonour of Jehovah. Rather than sanction sin in his people, God not only suffers them to be overthrown by their enemies, but even his own name to be for a while despised and "blasphemed among the heathen." But the triumph of the wicked is short (2 Samuel 5:17-25).

IV. THEIR TRUE STRENGTH UNDESTROYED. It consisted in the presence and power of their Divine and invisible King; his benevolent and unchangeable purpose concerning them (1 Samuel 12:22); his faithful, praying, obedient subjects in their midst, who had been long looking to David as his chosen "servant," and were now rallying round him daily until his following became "a great host like the host of God" (1 Chronicles 12:22). There was an "Israel after the flesh" (constituting the State), and there was an Israel "after the spirit" (constituting the Church); and in the latter lay "the power of an endless life." Judgment might sweep over the nation like a destroying hailstorm, and leave it like a tree bereft of all its leaves, and even "cut it down" to the ground. But its true life would be spared, would be tried and purified by affliction, and become a source of renewed power and greater glory. "As a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof "(Isaiah 6:13; Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 65:8).


1. That which is wrongly desired as an instrument of good becomes when obtained an instrument of evil.

2. Men may have their own Way apparently in opposition to the way of God, but his purpose does not change, and he knows how to carry it into effect.

3. The people who sanction the sins of their rulers justly share their punishment.

4. When the people of God expect to prevail against their enemies by adopting their sinful policy (1 Samuel 8:20), they are certain to be ultimately defeated.

5. The suffering and humiliation that follow sin are the most effectual means of its correction.

6. The hope of a nation in the day of trouble lies in its praying, believing, godly men.

7. God overrules all things, including the sins and sorrows of his people, for the establishment of his kingdom upon earth (1 Samuel 2:10).—D.

1 Samuel 31:11-13. (BETHSHAN, JABESH-GILEAD.)


The first victory of Saul (1 Samuel 11:1-15.) is connected with his death by the noble exploit of the men of Jabesh. It was due partly to loyalty and patriotism; chiefly to gratitude for benefits formerly conferred upon them. It is seldom that any one closes his earthly course without some token of grateful remembrance. Of one of the worst tyrants that ever held the reins of power in Rome (Nero), it is recorded that on the morning after he was buried amidst general execration fresh flowers were found strewn by an unknown hand upon his grave. Saul had done many generous deeds, and they were not forgotten. The gratitude of the men of Jabesh was marked by many admirable features. It was—

1. Unexpected. Who would have thought that the city which was so faithless and cowardly as to say to Nahash, "Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee," could have furnished such an instance of devotion? The noblest qualities sometimes appear in association with the meanest, and where men expect to find no good thing. Let us not despise our nature, nor think that at its worst it is wholly incapable of generous acts.

2. Long cherished. It was many years previously that Jabesh had been saved by Saul; but its grateful feeling had not (as is sometimes the case) grown cold with the lapse of time. When a philosopher was asked, "what doth soonest grow cold?" he replied, "Thanks."

3. Spontaneous. No special appeal was made to them; but perceiving that they could do something to testify their gratitude to their benefactor by rescuing his remains from the indignity to which they were subjected, "all the valiant men arose" of their own accord, "and went all night" (a distance of ten miles, across the Jordan) and accomplished it. Gratitude loses its proper character and ceases to be gratitude when it requires to be solicited and urged.

4. Disinterested. Saul and his sons were dead, and no reward for their daring effort might be expected. It was performed in somewhat of the same spirit as that with which Saul himself formerly acted; what was best in his life was remembered and admired by them (as it was by David, 2 Samuel 1:23), and it served to stir them to similar excellence. Disinterested conduct begets its like.

"Good deeds immortal are—they cannot die;
Unscathed by envious blight or withering frost,
They live, and bud, and bloom; and men partake
Still of their freshness, and are strong thereby"


5. Heroic and self-sacrificing; exhibited practically and at the risk of life, and displaying great energy and valour. "The pillars of fire of genuine human heroism are the noble lights of history, which make us feel at ease while sojourning among spectres, and horrors, and graves" (Lange).

6. Complete. It did not stop short of doing its best. "They took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk at Jabesh, and fasted seven days" (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 21:14). They could do no more; and what they did was done tenderly, mournfully, reverently, and in fulfilment of a sacred custom and religious duty.


1. Endeavour so to live that when you are gone you may be remembered with gratitude, and leave behind the recollection of good deeds which may incite others to the like.

2. Fail not to render gratitude to every one who has conferred a benefit upon you in the best way you can; be thankful, especially to God, for all his benefits towards you. "Nothing more detestable, does the earth produce than an ungrateful man" (Ausonius).

3. Seek above all things to obtain in life and death the honour that comes from God. "This Book began with Samuel's birth, and now ends with Saul's burial, the comparing of which together will teach us to prefer the honour which comes from God before any honours of which this world pretends to dispose" (M. Henry).—D.

1 Samuel 31:1-13.-Saul of Gibeah, and Saul of Tarsus.

It is instructive to compare the characters of different men with each other. This is done by Plutarch in his Lives of celebrated Greeks and Romans; and it may be done with advantage in the case of some of the characters described in the Scriptures. There was an interval of a thousand years between Saul of Gibeah and Saul of Tarsus) "who also is called Paul" (Acts 13:9). But if we look at them attentively, "and examine the several parts of their lives distinctly, as we do a poem or a picture" (Plutarch), we shall find in these two illustrious Hebrews, the one under the Old Covenant, the other under the New—

I. RESEMBLANCE in their—

1. Ancestral relation, religious privileges, and outward circumstances. Both belonged to "the tribe of Benjamin" (Acts 13:21; Philippians 3:5), received the name of Saul when "circumcised the eighth day," were brought up "under the law," after early years of obscure diligence held important public posi tions,—the one as first king of Israel, the other as a "chosen vessel" unto the Lord, to bear his name "before the Gentiles, and kings, and the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15),—lived a long life (over sixty years), and died a sudden and violent death.

2. Natural qualities: passionate, impulsive, warlike, zealous, daring even to rash ness, resolute, persistent; inherited from their common ancestor, of whom it was said, "Benjamin as a wolf shall ravin," etc. (Genesis 49:27); and characteristic of their tribe, as appears in Ehud (Judges 3:15). The Apostle of the Gentiles, "in the prompt audacities of his apostolic career, does not allow us to forget of what tribe he was."

3. Sudden conversion: the one on the way to Gibeah, on beholding "a company of the prophets" (Hebrews 10:1-39.); the other on the way to Damascus, overcome by the glorious revelation of the Lord (Acts 9:1-43.), whose followers he was persecuting; a startling surprise to all, and the commencement of a different course of life. "Is Saul also among the prophets? They were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple."

4. Energetic enterprises, to which they were called by the Divine Spirit, on behalf of the kingdom of God against its adversaries; in the one case with the sword, in the other with the word (Hebrews 11:1-40.; Acts 12:25; Acts 13:1-3).

II. CONTRAST in still more numerous particulars. They were the opposite of each other; as in physical appearance and mental culture, so also in their—

1. Extraordinary change, which in the one was partial, superficial, and temporary; in the other complete, deep, and enduring.

2. Real character. The one lived unto himself, and did not freely and fully surrender himself to the Divine will; the other lived unto the Lord, not being disobedient to the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19; Galatians 1:16; Philippians 1:21).

3. Gradual progress: in the one case, after brilliant promise, downward, in "pride, caprice, jealousy, cruelty, excusive avenging of himself, and at last open contempt and defiance of God;" in the other upward, in heavenly mindedness, spiritual power, and higher usefulness.

4. Fierce persecution. "The second Saul for a while followed only too faithfully in the footsteps of the first. If the one persecuted David, the other, with an energy of hate that did not fall short of his, David's greater Son. Presently, however, their lives divide, and one is the Saul of reprobation, the other of election" (Trench). The latter began where the former ended (Galatians 1:23), and became himself an object of the persecution in which he once shared.

5. Representative relation. The one represented, embodied, and pro moted what was worst in his tribe and nation, the other what was best.

6. Tragical end: the one in despair by his own hand, the other in glorious hope as a martyr of Christ (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

7. Lasting memorial: the one is a warning, the other is a pattern (1 Timothy 1:16; Philippians 3:17). The second Saul was "the likeness in the Christian Church" not so much of what the first was as of "what he might have been—the true David, restorer and enlarger of the true kingdom of God upon earth" (Stanley).


1. Religious advantages and eminent positions are of no real benefit unless they be rightly used.

2. The natural qualities which make one man a power for evil, make another, when sanctified, a power for good.

3. The heart must be right with God in order to a proper use of his gifts and a worthy course of life. "If the heart be not upright, whatever favourable beginnings there may be, there cannot be a uniform perseverance in goodness or any happy conclusion" (Robinson).

4. Divine grace when persistently resisted is withdrawn, leaving the soul a prey to the "evil spirit;" when humbly and faithfully received, is followed by more grace.

5. In proportion as a man lives to himself or to God he becomes weak, sinful, and miserable, or strong, holy, and happy.

6. There is no standing still in moral life; if men do not become better they infallibly become worse.

7. As a man lives so he dies. "Think of the end of Saul of Gibeah, and learn in time to be wise." Think of the end of Saul of Tarsus, and "be faithful unto death."—D.


1 Samuel 31:3-6

The bitter end.

The tragic element, so conspicuous in this history, is intense in the last scene of all.


1. His despair. When the battle went against him, and the Philistines, keeping beyond reach of his long arm and terrible sword, hit him from a distance with their arrows, the king's spirit suddenly failed and died within him. "He trembled sore because of the archers." Always fitful in his moods, liable to sudden elation and sudden depression, he gave up all for lost. He would not flee, but he would fight no more. Probably the horrible recollection of the words spoken to him by the spectre at Endor increased his despair, and he thought only how to die.

2. His pride. Saul had never shown much regard for the sacredness of human life, but he cherished a most exalted sense of the sacredness of his own person as the Lord's anointed. No descendant of a long line of so styled Christian or Catholic sovereigns has held a loftier claim of personal inviolability. So he resolved that no heathen should cut him down in battle. Anything rather than this. If his armour bearer would not kill him, he would kill himself.

3. His suicide. With all his horror of being slain by a heathen, Saul died like a heathen—dismissed himself from life after the manner of the pagan heroes; not with any sanction from the word of God or the history of his servants. (Illustrate from the stories of Brutus and Cassius and the younger Cato.) The only instance of what can be called self-destruction among the men of Israel prior to the days of Saul was that of Samson, and his was a self-devotion for the destruction of his country's enemies which ranks with the heroism of one dying in battle rather than with cases of despairing suicide. There is a case after the days of Saul, viz; that of Ahithophel, who, in a fit of deep chagrin, deliberately hanged himself. To the servants of God suicide must always appear as a form of murder, and one that implies more cowardice than courage. English law regards it as a very grave crime, and to mark this our old statutes, unable to punish the self-murderer, assigned to his body ignominious burial It is, however, the charitable custom of our times to assume that one who kills himself must be bereft of reason, and so to hold him morally irresponsible. Apology of this kind may be pleaded for King Saul, and pity for his disordered brain takes away the sharpness from our censure. Still we must not overlook—

4. The admonition which his death conveys. Saul had really prepared for himself this wretched death. He had disregarded the prophet, and so was without consolation. He had killed the priests, and so was without sacrifice or intercession. He had driven away David, and so was without the help of the best soldier in the nation, a leader of 600 men inured to service and familiar with danger. He had lived, in his later years at least, like a madman; and, like a madman, he threw himself on his sword and died. Here lies admonition for us. As a man sows he reaps. As a life is shaped, so is the death determined. We speak of the penalty on evil doers, but it is no mere arbitrary infliction; it is the natural fruit and necessary result of the misconduct. One leads a sensual life, and the penalty on him is that of exhaustion, disease, and premature decay. One leads a selfish life, hardening his heart against appeal or reproach, and his doom is to lose all power and experience of sympathy, to pass through the world winning no love, and pass out of the world drawing after him no regret.


1. Its innocence. Look at the pious, generous prince, as well as the proud and wilful king, slain on that woeful day. A man who loves God and whom God loves may be innocently involved in a cause which is bound to fail. It may be by ties of family, or by official position which he cannot renounce; and, unable to check the fatal course of his comrades, he is dragged down in the common catastrophe. Jonathan died in the same battle with his father, but not as his father died. Let us remember that men are so involved with one another in the world, in ways quite defensible, sometimes unavoidable, that as one may share the success of another without deserving any part of the praise, so also may one share the downfall of others without being at all to blame for the courses or transactions which brought about the disastrous issue.

2. Its timeliness. The death of Jonathan: occurring when it did, brought more advantage to the nation than his continued life could possibly have rendered. It opened the way for David's succession to the throne. Had Jonathan survived his father, be might have been willing to cede the succession to David, but it is not at all probable that the people would have allowed his obvious claim to be set aside, and any conflict between the partisans of two such devoted friends would have been most painful to both. So it was well ordered and well timed that Jonathan died as a brave soldier in the field. He missed an earthly throne indeed, but he gained all the sooner a heavenly home. So is it with many a death which seems to be sad and untimely. A man of God cannot lose by dying. To die is gain. But he may by dying advance the cause of God more than he could by living. His departure may clear the ground for other arrangements under Divine providence, for which the time is ripe, or open the way for some one who is chosen and called to do a work for God and man that must no longer be delayed.—F.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/1-samuel-31.html. 1897.
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