The Death of Saul and Jonathan
1 Samuel 31; 2 Sam. 1:1-16.
We return now to Saul and follow him to the end. He went back from the fatal interview with Samuel at Endor, and with the courage of a desperation which could do nothing less, put himself for the last time at the head of his army. How solemn and awful it was! It was not even a forlorn hope, but a forgone conclusion that disaster should fall upon them. It has been said that Saul did not make the best disposition of his army, and that the Philistines occupied a commanding position from which their assaults upon the Israelites were bound to be successful. Of this we can say but little. The topography of the land may indicate that Saul had lost all judgment, and failed even to make use of the strategy which a man of the world would have seen to be best.
The spiritual truth, however, so predominates over all here, that we can leave such a question as this for others to examine. It is enough for us that disobedience here meets its governmental doom, and that the word of Samuel as to the outcome of the battle must be fulfilled, no matter what the strength of the respective armies might be. Napoleon is reported to have said that God was on the side of the heaviest batteries. Poor man, he lived to find out that God was not on his side, at last.
Few, indeed, are the details we have of the battle. Doubtless, Jonathan fought with bravery and went down with his face to the enemy. His brothers also fall, all except one, Ishbosheth, ("the man of shame,") whose very survival seemed to perpetuate the awful disgrace which fell upon the house of Saul. What a tragedy it was! Those who can appreciate a dramatic situation will find here a scene more suggestive than that of Macbeth. We know not whether Saul continued to fight valiantly or not. At any rate, the battle went sore against him. We may conceive that possibly he was able to hold his own against individual assaults, and when a swordsman met him or one with a spear, possibly he could defend himself, but he was wounded of the archers who could stand at a distance, out of the reach of his hurled javelin and away from the edge of his sword. Against these, he had nothing, and was sorely wounded by them. We find later, in connection with David's lament, that he commanded to teach the children of Judah the use of the bow. Whether this, however, refers to equipment with weapons with which they could fight with the enemy at a distance, or whether it was a melody of that name, to which the lament over Saul and Jonathan was set, we cannot speak certainly. In either case, it is suggestive that reference is probably made to the means by which Saul was wounded.
He did not, however, meet his death by the arrow. He was wounded sorely, or as it may be rendered, "writhed sore because of the archers" and knew that his fighting was over. Under these circumstances, he calls to his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery. This, apparently with some sense of what was due to God and to the high office which Saul held, the armor-bearer refused to do. But when we compare this armor-bearer with the one who so courageously followed Jonathan, when single handed they faced the whole Philistine army, what a fall we have! All that he does is to imitate Saul in his suicide.
We must note, however, one expression which falls from Saul with regard to the Philistines. He begged his armor-bearer to put him to death "lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through and abuse me." Was there the faintest shadow of faith in this expression? Did he still draw a distinction between himself and the uncircumcised, those who had no mark of the divine covenant upon them? Faint indeed is the glimmer, so faint that we cannot connect any faith with it. The expression might well be used by one who would speak thus of his enemies, and his evident solicitude is that his person may not be subjected to the humiliation of captivity and mutilation.
Self-righteousness will preserve its reputation to the very last, and seek to guard itself from the humiliation of a public exposure of that which it would fain hide. Pride cleaves to the last to poor Saul, and he who had pled with Samuel to remain and honor him before the people, now would seek to guard the last vestiges of that honor, which he had already sacrificed by his disobedience, from further degradation. What then is to be his resource? Will he, even when thus sorely wounded by the archers, turn to God and throw himself upon His mercy? Will he thus prove that though the archers have sorely shot at him and wounded him, his hands are made strong by the mighty One of Jacob? Alas, in this hour of hopeless distress, he does not turn to God. His own sword with which he had been meeting the enemy, a figure, we may say, of the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, he turns against his own bosom and falls upon it. He thus becomes the first suicide of whom we have a definite record in Scripture. He comes to his end, so far as his responsibility is concerned, by his own hand. What solemn food for meditation is here!
Disobedience, or refusal to make a full end of the flesh, specious though the excuses for not doing so may be, ends in self-destruction. Sin is suicide. In what dreadful company does this act of self-destruction put king Saul! He is with Ahithophel, the traitor who, like himself, sought the life of David, and is associated also with that still darker traitor who sold his Lord and then, in hopeless remorse, went out and hanged himself. Dark indeed is the scene about mount Gilboa. We would not tarry there from choice. One of the high places of Israel, it is a scene of crowning dishonor, but we must linger a while longer, in order to gather further lessons of the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the utter futility of the flesh.
It seems that even in his own act of self-destruction, king Saul was not entirely successful. Passing over for a moment to the next chapter, in the Amalekite's account to David, we find that he was still leaning upon his spear when he passed that way, and it was again at his request that this stranger finally slew Saul. Thus, three times did he show the deliberate purpose that he would not fall alive into the hand of the Philistines. Three times was he a responsible suicide: once when he besought his armor-bearer to slay him; the second time when he fell upon his own sword; and the third time when he made the final request of the Amalekite. There can be no doubt, then, of his purpose.
It was an Amalekite that slew Saul, suggesting what we have already seen, that sin is self-destruction: one of the very nation which he had failed to completely destroy now rises up to make an end of him. Truly, God's ways are equal; He links thus for us the beginning and the ending of sin. A spared Amalekite — some lust of the flesh pandered to and allowed, harmless it may seem in itself, but a deliberate sparing of evil opens the way for this closing act of shame; the spared sin, we may say, rises up to complete the work of self-destruction.
At last, Saul and his sons are dead; and now on that shameful field of Gilboa, we see the Philistine ghouls appear to rob the bodies and expose them to all indignity. The poor, dismembered body, stripped of its armor which is carried as a trophy and put in the house of Ashtoreth, is nailed against the walls of Bethshan, "the house of quiet" — what a quiet! not that which is from Him who "giveth His beloved sleep." The Philistines are apparently oblivious of how their previous victory had been followed by disaster, when they gave the glory of it to Dagon, their god. They bring the head of Saul into the house of Dagon, and his armor into the house of their goddess Ashtoreth. A female deity had prevailed over the pride of Israel, and by implication, in their minds at least, over Jehovah Himself.
One gleam of light shines in at the close of this dark story, which recalls the brightest page in poor Saul's life — his victory over Ammon, by which he rescued the men of Jabesh Gilead (1 Sam. 11). Evidently in remembrance of this, these now come by night and take the bodies of Saul and his sons from the walls of Bethshan, bring them to Jabesh, and burn them and mourn for seven days. It was appropriate that they should do this, and is in accord with that spirit of loyalty which recognizes whatever it can,even in the life of those whose main course has been evil.
We recur now to David, who has returned from a far different conflict, in which he has overthrown the Amalekites. The young man who claimed to have made way with Saul, takes his crown and his bracelet and brings them to David. He evidently thinks that he is the bearer of good tidings, and that the news he brings, with the proof of its truth in the crown and signet, will win for him some special reward and possible dignity at the hands of David. He could have no other thought than that it would be an occasion of rejoicing. He tells, with apparent truthfulness, and possibly boasting, of his share in the death of Saul, only to find that his news is met with mourning. The sorrow is first prominent. With rent garments and fasting, David and his men deplore the disaster: "And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword."
David now asks the young man who had brought the news, whence he was, and then the stern question is put to him: "How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thy hand to destroy the Lord's anointed?" The very first act, we may say, of David, after what we may call his accession, is thus to inflict retribution upon the Amalekite. It was fitting that he should do so. It showed his entire refusal of any share in the taking away of his longtime adversary. It was to be the Lord's hand alone, and not his own, which would rid him of the oppressor. His reverence for the kingly authority, and his recognition that Saul, with all his folly, was the Lord's anointed, are thus maintained by him in putting to death one who would desecrate him.
The victory of the Philistines is, for the time being, complete. The terrified Israelites leave their homes, and their cities to the conquerors, who dwell in them. Every defeat by the enemy becomes thus an occupation of territory which should belong to the people of God.
We find in 1 Chr. 10, a parallel narrative of the death of Saul, largely identical with that in Samuel. The conclusion, however, after the manner of Chronicles, gives the reason for what had happened: "So Saul died for his transgressions which he committed against the Lord, even against the word of the Lord which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to inquire of it; and inquired not of the Lord: therefore, He slew him and turned the kingdom unto David, the son of Jesse."
It will thus be seen that the death of Saul was consequent, not only upon his original act of disobedience, but the confirmation of his whole course of unbelief and departure from God which culminated in his seeking the witch at Endor, instead of inquiring of the Lord. It shows us that even at the very last, he might have turned to Him whom he had so deeply dishonored. How much better it would have been had he died, saying with Job: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust;" or with Esther, "If I perish, I perish."