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As 1 Samuel comes to a close, the life of Saul comes to a miserable end. As we will see, the manner of his death was a fitting picture of the way he had lived his life throughout the course of his reign. His reign was a long pattern of self-destruction, and in the end, Saul took his own life—the final act of self-destruction. He died the way he had lived, destroying himself.
“Now the Philistines fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa. . .” (1 Sam. 31:1-13).
Summary of the Text
The chapter begins with the Philistines attacking, and they routed the men of Israel. As they fled from the Philistines, the carnage took place on the mountain Gilboa (v. 1). The Philistines were in hard pursuit of Saul and his three sons, and they successfully killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua (v. 2). In the next verse, the battle was going hard against Saul, and he was badly wounded by the Philistine archers (v. 3). The language here indicates an ongoing battle, which means it was not an utter rout. His wounds apparently made it impossible for him to continue the fight. Saul then told his armor-bearer to kill him, to keep the Philistines from abusing him. The armor-bearer refused, and so Saul fell on a sword, taking his own life (v. 4). When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he followed him, doing the same thing (v. 5). And so Saul, his three sons, his armor-bearer, and a number of other men with him, all died on the same day (v. 6). The men on the other side of the Jordan (not very many miles away), when they saw that the battle had gone badly for them, evacuated their cities, which the Philistines then occupied (v. 7). The Philistines came around the next day to strip the dead, and it was then that they identified Saul and his three sons (v. 8). They decapitated Saul, stripped his armor, and sent the armor to their homeland in triumph (v. 9). They displayed his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth—similar to how the Israelites kept Goliath’s sword at the house of the Lord. Saul’s body was then hung on the wall of Beth-shan (v. 10). When the men of Jabesh-gilead heard what had happened, their valiant men went there and recovered the bodies of Saul and his sons, brought them back and burned them (vv. 11-12). After that, they took the remaining bones, buried them under a tamarisk tree, and fasted for seven days (v. 13).
We should say a quick word here about the story of the Amalekite at the beginning of 2 Samuel who tried to ingratiate himself with David by falsely claiming to have killed Saul. The story was false (conflicting with this narrative), and David convicted him on his own terms. We should rather trust the author of 1 Samuel than a self- aggrandizing (and not very smart) Amalekite.
Burial and Cremation
The customary biblical approach to the dead is that of burial. The customary pagan approach is that of burning the body in cremation. The difference has to do with making a good testimony about the hope of resurrection, and not because it is somehow harder for God to raise someone who has been burned than one who has been buried. The resurrection is not threatened by any degree of decomposition, however it happens.
For example, Joseph gave instructions about his bones, and he did this because he wanted to make a declaration of his faith (Heb. 11:22). In this passage, the heroic men of Jabesh-gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons because wanted to prevent any further dishonor to the bodies. This was the whole point of their mission. Jonathan is not going to be short-changed on the day of resurrection. Later in the story, David has the bones of Saul and Jonathan (and presumably the others) moved from this place to the family tomb (2 Sam. 21:12-14). Among the Israelites, there is one other mention of burning bodies (apart from unique penal or sacrificial situations), and it is found in Amos 6:10, where the concern is apparently to stop the spread of contagious disease. Under ordinary circumstances, though, the biblical pattern for dealing with the bodies of the faithful is through burial—in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
A Study in Failure
The trajectory of Saul’s life had certainly been one of spiraling failure. He was characterized by his stiff-necked and close-fisted jealousies, and it was by this that he destroyed himself. By the end of his life, it could not be said that the Philistines had killed him—he had done it himself. It could not be said that David had removed him from the throne—he had done it himself. It could not be said that anyone other than Saul was responsible for the disaster of his final days. Saul did all of this by his own hand or, more specifically, by his own devouring envy. His end was decisive—he was struck with arrows, pierced in his belly, had his head cut off, and then he was burned.
He was buried under a tamarisk tree. The last time we saw him there, he was holding a tyrant’s spear in his hand, and lying about David (1 Sam. 22:6).
And yet, despite the fact that Saul fell to his death in this great catastrophe, we see even in this tragic conclusion, the height from which he fell. The men of Jabesh-gilead who retrieved his body were the first Israelites whom Saul had delivered from their enemies (1 Sam. 11:5-11). They were still grateful for what Saul had done in his better days. This is true also of David, who delivers one of the noblest eulogies ever (2 Sam. 1:17ff).
40 Years for Nothing
This book begins with a leader of Israel dying, along with his sons, as the result of a disastrous battle. The book ends the same way. The book begins with the Philistines in the ascendancy, and the book ends in the same way. The book begins with a great Philistine victory in battle, and it ends the same way. And yet, Saul’s appointed mission had been to deliver Israel from the Philistines (1 Sam. 9:16).
Saul did not do what he was commissioned to do. We are devoted to good works that God has commissioned us to do (Eph. 2:8-10), but our lives will go exactly as Saul’s did—unless we trust in the greater David, the Lord Jesus. He is the only one who perfectly fulfilled the mission that was entrusted to Him. Therefore God has highly exalted Him—as He did with David in a type—and this is why we can walk in the good works that God prepared beforehand for us to do.