1 Samuel 31
by Pastor David Groendyk
The build-up for this Philistine war has gone on for three chapters, and now the action finally swings back to Saul to tell us what happens. All this talk of war, and the whole thing is over in verse 1: “The men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.” This chapter is less about the war itself and more about what happens to Saul.
Saul’s days have been numbered since his encounter with the medium at En-dor in chapter 28, which was apparently only about twenty-four hours ago. The Lord had predicted for Saul that Israel would lose the battle and that he and his sons would join Samuel in death. This is exactly what happens, but one aspect that hadn’t been explicitly stated by God was what a shameful death it was. As the Philistines overtake Saul, he’s worried about the shame of the Gentile people mistreating him in his death, and so the only way out that Saul sees is suicide. Then to make matters worse, the Philistines find him anyway and do humiliate him even in death (vv. 8–10). It is a tragic end for God’s once-anointed king who ends up himself fulfilling God’s prediction (1 Sam. 28:19). What a great spiritual darkness Saul had slipped into after the Lord removed his Spirit from him, and what great sorrow it led to. J.C. Ryle in his book Thoughts for Young Men (speaking not about Saul but generally) says, “Sin is the mother of all sorrow, and no sort of sin appears to give a man so much misery and pain as the sins of his youth. The foolish acts he did,—the time he wasted,—the mistakes he made,—the bad company he kept,—the harm he did himself, both body and soul,—the chances of happiness he threw away,—the openings of usefulness he neglected;—all these are things that often embitter the conscience of an old man, throw a gloom on the evening of his days, and fill the later hours of his life with self-reproach and shame.” Saul had so much opportunity being so close to God, but he chose to do himself great spiritual harm very early in his reign, and it led to a tragic end. Sin often leads to great sorrow, and Saul is a sober warning of that truth.
Don’t miss the other major death in this chapter either. Caught up in the crossfire are Saul’s sons, including Jonathan (v. 2). It’s jolting to hear how such a big player in this book and such a loyal friend and servant of David gets a quick and unceremonious end. Surely we would’ve hoped for Jonathan to be spared from the Lord’s prediction and serve the new King David faithfully in his court for a good many years, but that was not God’s will. This is definitely not the happiest ending to a book of the Bible, but these hard truths are important to remember. Even the most righteous men and women do not necessarily escape the tragedies of this life. Actually, Ralph Davis in his commentary calls Jonathan’s death the truly tragic death rather than Saul’s. Here was a loyal follower of Yahweh who willingly gave up his own right to the throne for the sake of obeying the Lord, and he’s killed in battle because of his father’s great sin. And yet, Davis goes on to say that perhaps this death was not so tragic after all. Didn’t Jonathan remain faithful in his calling by Saul’s side? Didn’t Jonathan remain steadfast in his obedience to God and loyalty to David? And didn’t Jonathan enter into an even better kingdom than that of his father or David? As Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Any believer who dies in the Lord has gained something he cannot lose. Are you willing to give up that which you cannot keep for the sake of gaining an eternal and unfading inheritance?