DEATH OF SAUL AND HIS SONS, 1 Samuel 31:1-13.
From this chapter on, through the subsequent history of the Kings, we have the parallel, and ofttimes supplementary, compilations of the books of Chronicles. Compare with this chapter 1 Chronicles 10. This chapter resumes the account of the Philistine war which was commenced at 1 Samuel 28:1, and broken off at 1 Samuel 29:11.
1.The men of Israel fled — It was probably whispered among the Israelitish troops that Saul had received a communication from Samuel, and that their defeat and their leader’s death had been foretold. This would unnerve their bravest heroes, and spread terror among all. And after his return from that midnight conference with the witch of Endor Saul himself could have had no spirit to fight.
2.Followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons — When Saul and his sons saw the people flying they probably placed themselves in the thickest of the battle, and sought, as by the last efforts of despair, to turn the tide of the Philistines’ victory. Thus they exposed themselves to death.
3.Battle went sore — This verse is rendered better thus: Then the battle was heavy against Saul, and the archers, men with the bow, discovered him, and he became greatly terrified because of the archers — After his sons had fallen, Saul was in worse straits than ever, for now the brunt of the battle came on him.
Archers — מורים, shooters; explained further by the phrase men with the bow; that is, men who shot arrows with the bow. ימצאהו, found him; discovered him; singled him out; not hit him, as our version. After the fall of his sons, the archers discovered Saul, and began to aim their missiles at him. ויחל, imperfect, shortened from חול, to writhe, to quake with pain. The word nowhere means to be wounded, as our version has it here. It is, indeed, probable that some of their arrows struck him, and this caused his alarm. He saw that he was the mark of the Philistine sharp-shooters, and he therefore writhed and quaked with terror at the thought of falling by such hands.
4.His armourbearer would not — He dared not stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed; the very thought of such an act filled him with fear.
Saul took a sword — Rather, took the sword, that is, the sword of the armourbearer just referred to.
Fell upon it — Thrust it through himself by falling over upon it.
This account of Saul’s death is every way consistent with itself and with Saul’s character, and is to be regarded as the true and authentic record of the sacred historian himself. The story of the Amalekite, who stole the king’s crown and bracelet, and brought them to David, (2 Samuel 1:4-10,) is to be treated as a fabrication, feigned with the hope of finding favour with the successor of Saul.
5.His armourbearer saw that Saul was dead — He probably drew the sword from the body of the king and hoped to save him, but all too late.
He fell likewise upon his sword — The same sword by which the Lord’s anointed had been slain. Touching and beautiful was this devotion of the faithful armourbearer to his king. It not only evidences the deep attachment of a true and tender heart, but also shows that Saul was not without a strong personal magnetism, which drew others to him, and kept them firmly there. At his public election at Mizpeh there clave to Saul a number of men whose hearts were touched by God, (1 Samuel 10:26,) and at no time during his reign did he want for attendants who were thus tenderly attached to his person and interests.
6.All his men — All his household, (compare 1 Chronicles 10:6,) who went with him to the war, and on whom his hopes for the future hung.
“The end of the unhappy king corresponded to his life ever since the day of his rejection as king. When he had lost the battle, and saw his three sons fall at his side, and the archers of the enemy pressing hard upon him, without either repentance or remorse he put an end to his life by suicide, to escape the disgrace of being wounded and abused by the foe.” — Keil.
7.The men of Israel that were on the other side of the valley — The inhabitants on the opposite side of the great Plain of Jezreel; that is, on the western side of the plain, opposite to the mountains of Gilboa.
On the other side Jordan — The western side of Jordan, opposite to Jabesh-Gilead. Thus the entire northern part of the land of Israel fell under the dominion of the Philistines.
Philistines came and dwelt in them — This speedy occupation by the Philistines of the conquered and depopulated cities of Israel, shows their strong purpose to hold henceforth in close subjection the country whose people had been to them so irrepressible a foe. But Abner seems to have recovered these cities to the kingdom of Saul, (2 Samuel 2:8-10,) and subsequently David utterly subdued the Philistines. 2 Samuel 8:1.
8.On the morrow — They did not pause in the heat of battle or in the first flush of victory to gather up their trophies.
They found Saul and his three sons — They probably knew that he had fallen, or at all events had not escaped with the fugitives of Israel, but until now they had not stopped their pursuit to search for his dead body.
9.They cut off his head — His sons seem to have received the same barbarous treatment. See 1 Samuel 31:12. This revenge on the lifeless bodies of the slain shows, according to some writers, the low and miserable barbarity of the Philistines; but did not David treat the dead body of Goliath in the same way? (1 Samuel 17:54;) and what shall be said of Samuel’s hewing of Agag in pieces? 1 Samuel 15:33. We must not judge the usages of that age by our own.
To publish it — That the daughters of the uncircumcised might rejoice and triumph. 2 Samuel 1:20.
10.Ashtaroth — See on Judges 2:13.
Beth-shan — The modern Beisan, between the mountains of Gilboa and the river Jordan. See on Joshua 17:11. The wall of Beth-shan, to which the bodies were fastened, appears to have faced some main street of the city. 2 Samuel 21:12.
11.The inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead — Who ever preserved a tender and grateful remembrance of what they owed to the heroism of Saul. See chap. 11.
12.Burnt them — Such disposal of the bodies of the dead was not a custom among the Israelites, but has been accounted for in the present case on the supposition that these bodies were mutilated and already putrid, so that they could not receive honourable burial; and there was danger that the Philistines, finding the bodies stolen from the wall of Beth-shan, would hasten to recapture them, and do them some greater dishonour.
13.Took their bones — From which it appears that they were not burned to ashes.
Buried them’ at Jabesh — Where they remained until David had them removed and placed in the sepulchre of Kish at Zelah. 2 Samuel 21:14.
Fasted seven days — Because of their deep humiliation and grief.
Here ends the history of Saul, and at its close we may well pause to record a few additional reflections on his life and reign. We are impressed from the beginning to the end of his career with the conviction, which deepens all the way along, that he was unequal to his times. He was the center of events and persons greater than himself, and was sadly deficient in those mental and religious qualities which mark the highest style of man. He possessed, indeed, some touching and tender traits of character. In his earlier years he was meek and little in his own eyes, (1 Samuel 15:17,) though in the eyes of all who knew him he was a choice and noble youth. 1 Samuel 9:2. His emotional soul quickly caught the ecstasy of the prophetic schools, and he prophesied among them; and even in the later days of his insane persecution of David there would come moments of deep humiliation and contrition of soul, when he would melt into tearful tenderness. 1 Samuel 24:16; 1 Samuel 26:21. But he was unequal to the weight of empire. Elevation to power spoiled and finally ruined him, for there was in him a sad mental and religious incapacity for meeting the exigencies of that most trying period of Israelitish history.
“If Samuel is the great example of an ancient saint growing up from childhood to old age without a sudden conversion, Saul is the first direct example of the mixed character often produced by such a conversion, a call coming in the midday of life to rouse the man to higher thoughts than the lost asses of his father’s household or than the tumults of war and victory. He became ‘another man,’ yet not entirely. He was, as is so often the case, half-converted, half-roused. His mind moved unequally and disproportionately in its new sphere. Backwards and forwards, in the names of his children, we see alternately the signs of the old heathenish superstition and of the new purified religion of Jehovah. He caught the prophetic inspiration not continuously, but only in fitful gusts. Then he would be again the slave of his common pursuits. His religion was never blended with his moral nature. It broke out in wild, ungovernable acts of zeal and superstition, and then left him more a prey than ever to his own savage disposition. With the prospects and the position of a David, he remained to the end a Jephthah or a Samson, with this difference, that, having outlived the age of Jephthah and of Samson, he could not be as they; and the struggle, therefore, between what he was and what he might have been, grew fiercer as years went on; and the knowledge of Samuel, and the companionship of David, became to him a curse instead of a blessing.” — Stanley.
The true theocratic view of Saul’s reign is appropriately given in Jehovah’s own words. Hosea 13:11: “I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath.” We must not understand, then, that Saul was chosen because God saw in him the proper qualifications for a king, but quite the contrary. God wished to punish his people for their loss of the true theocratic spirit, and their blind adherence to the false principles and aims with which they thought to revolutionize their government, and the punishment came by the administration of an incompetent king. The leaders of Israel were in an almost passionate haste for change. The occasion and manner of their asking for a king was like throwing the blame of all their national misfortunes on Jehovah, and was accompanied by a suggestion that a king like one of the heathen monarchs would be better than any other kind of leader; so he gave them a king much after their fancy in order to punish them — a man of lofty stature, of splendid personal appearance, of strong heroic impulses, but sadly defective in those nobler virtues which make a man after God’s own heart.
We need not suppose that Saul was so exclusively chosen of God as that the people had no hand and voice in his election. Already, when he first appeared to Samuel, he was designated as the one above all others, “on whom was all the desire of Israel.” 1 Samuel 9:20. His noble presence and lofty stature, and the wealth and political influence of his family, had already led many in Israel, as they were talking up a king, to turn their eyes to Saul, the son of Kish. The sacred historian may have purposely passed over the merely human measures that were used to secure Saul’s election, and have given us, as is the design of sacred history, the working of God’s hand in the matter.
In the introduction to chapter 13, where the history of Saul’s reign properly begins, we have called attention to the fact that the first three chapters of that history (13, 14, and 15) are devoted to a detailed account of the three great errors of Saul’s life. From these three errors sprang all his after woes. They were the religious crises of his history, and at each point he failed.
But though Saul’s reign was a failure, his whole career is sketched with a plaintive tenderness. Not only did Samuel greatly mourn for Saul, (1 Samuel 15:11; 1 Samuel 15:35; 1 Samuel 16:1,) but the sacred historian, caught the sad, tender spirit of that saintly judge, and breathed it into his narrative. In the same spirit David pours forth his touching elegy over the fallen beauty and might of Israel. 2 Samuel 1:19-27. In the same spirit let us remember that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany