This morning’s sermon is titled “Saul Dies in Battle”. It is the 12th message of our current Bible series “The United Church - A Study of Ancient Israel”. We will be reading from 1st Samuel 31 which is the last chapter of the book. Starting next week we will move into 2nd Samuel. While most of 1 Samuel is concerned with turbulent kingship of Saul, 2nd Samuel focuses exclusively on the reign of King David.
There were 3 different kings who ruled over the entire united monarchy of Israel. King Saul was the first of these and his reign is recorded only in 1st Samuel. King David was the second and his reign is described in both 2nd Samuel and 1st Chronicles. King Solomon is the last of the trio and his reign is documented in 2nd Chronicles and 1st Kings. Thus, the books of Samuel begin with Saul, the books of Chronicles begin with David, and the books of Kings begin with Solomon.
David joined the Philistines as they headed towards Israel, but they did not want his help and asked him and his men return to Ziklag. During the days that followed, David journeyed home and then had to deal with the Amalekites. Meanwhile the Philistine army marched into Israel to wage war against King Saul. When Saul heard that the Philistines had arrived to fight, he foolishly sought out a medium in hopes of determining what he should do. The message he received was quite troubling. Saul was told that he and his sons would be killed in the upcoming battle against the Philistines and that Israel would be soundly defeated.
In our study today, we will learn what actually happened during this heated conflict. We will also discover some events that took place in the immediate aftermath of the battle. As always, we will try to glean some lesson from this text that applies to our lives today.
I. THE DEATH OF KING SAUL (1 Samuel 31:1-6; 1 Chronicles 10:1-6,13-14)
Fierce fighting broke out between the Philistines and the Israelites. Soon the armies of Israel were overpowered and began to flee, but the Philistines gave chase and slaughtered many men on Mt. Gilboa. The Philistines overtook the sons of Saul - Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchi-shua - and killed all 3 of them. During his retreat, King Saul was hit by a Philistine archer’s arrow and was critically wounded. He could not continue his escape.
Saul did not want to be captured and killed by the heathen Philistines, lest they make a sport of him, so he ordered his armor bearer to pierce him through with a sword. When the fearful armor bearer refused, Saul killed himself by falling on his own sword. The armor bearer saw that the king was dead and then committed suicide also. The foreboding words of the medium had come true - King Saul, his 3 sons, his armor bearer, and numerous Israeli soldiers were dead.
Saul’s sinful rebellion against God finally caught up with him. He died as a result of the trespasses he committed, the word of the LORD which he did not keep, and for consulting a medium rather than inquiring of God. While Saul’s disobedience might have been more severe and continuous than others, the truth is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Furthermore, “the wages of sin is death”. Saul’s tragic end is a stark reminder that everyone will die as a result of their sin someday. The only question is, are you prepared for that day when it comes?
II. THE OCCUPATION OF THE VALLEY (1 Samuel 31:7; 1 Chronicles 10:7)
The combat had taken place in the Jezreel Valley which is located in north-central Israel. When the inhabitants of the valley saw that the battle was lost they abandoned their cities. The victorious Philistines came and occupied them. As a result, a large presence of Philistines was temporarily established in this region of Israel.
Their crushing defeat at the Valley of Jezreel was a devastating loss for the young nation of Israel. Their king was dead, and so were his sons - his most obvious successors. Their army was greatly depleted and in utter disarray. Whatsmore, a large area of the country had now fallen into the hands of and was inhabited by the enemy. This was one of Israel’s most catastrophic military losses in ancient history.
Scripture records several battles that were fought in or around the Jezreel Valley. Some of them were great victories and others were horrific defeats. However, the most important contest to take place there has yet to come. The city of Megiddo is located in the valley, and many Biblical scholars agree that the Battle of Armageddon will take place in this region. Following the Great Tribulation, the enemies of God led by the Anti-Christ himself will gather to make a final assault on Israel. Jesus will come riding out of heaven leading the armies of God and will execute the LORD’s wrath upon the Devil and his followers. Christ’s victory will be swift and complete, Israel will be saved, and Satan and his forces will be bound for 1,000 years during the Millennium.
III. THE RECOVERY OF SAUL’S BODY (1 Samuel 31:8-13; 1 Chronicles 10:8-12)
After the fighting had ended, on the next day, the Philistines returned to the battlefield to strip the armor and other valuables from the fallen Israelites. As they were doing so, they came across the bodies of King Saul and his sons on Mt. Gilboa. The Philistines cut Saul’s head off, took his weapons, and sent them back to Philistia as a declaration of their triumph to be placed in the idolatrous temple of Ashtaroth. Meanwhile Saul’s decapitated body was taken to the now occupied Israeli city of Bath-shan and fastened onto a wall.
When the people of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done, a group of valiant men planned a daring mission to recover Saul’s body. They travelled on foot all night to Beth-shan. Under the cover of darkness, these brave men took the bodies of King Saul and his sons down from the wall and brought them back to Jabesh. Then they burned the bodies and buried the bones under a tamarisk (oak) tree. Burning bodies was uncommon in Israel, but presumably because these had be so mutilated and exposed they determined it to be appropriate in this instance. The distraught people of Jabesh mourned and fasted for 7 days.
Perhaps you recall, earlier in this series, that King Saul was held in high regard by the citizens of Jabesh-gilead. One of his very first acts as king was to deliver this besieged city from the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11). Nahash had threatened to kill them all or at least to gouge out their right eyes even if they surrendered. But King Saul rallied the Israelite forces and came to their rescue, driving the heathen Ammonites away. Now, some 40 years later, the men of Jabesh showed their appreciation by bravely retrieving Saul’s body and giving it a proper burial. The lesson - people don’t forget the kind things that you do for them. So be nice and help people - perhaps someday they will return the favor.
Saul’s long reign as Israel’s first king came to a chilling end on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa. His rule had started off so well. The people of Israel had celebrated his coronation with great fanfare. The first half of his kingship included several extraordinary military successes. But as time progressed Saul increasingly disobeyed the commands of God. Eventually the Spirit of God departed from Saul, his rule began to deteriorate quickly. In the later part of his reign King Saul largely neglected the interests of Israel as a whole, but instead devoted himself to the jealous pursuit of David. Finally he died in disgrace by his own hand.
Saul’s story depicts the life of a person who began well but ended poorly. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “It doesn’t matter how you start - what matters is how you finish.” How true this is! Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Rarely does the runner who starts off in lead go on to win the race. Saul’s life can be compared to someone who came out of the gates quickly and took an early lead, but as the race wore on they faded to the back. When it was all over, Saul was in last place.
On the contrary, Jesus reminds us that it is how we finish that is most important. Perhaps your life has not started off very well. Maybe you’ve stumbled and fallen right out of the blocks. Could it be that the hurdles of life have slowed you down and left you far behind? My friend, as long as you are living on this earth there is still an opportunity to turn things around. Jesus can bring you from the back of the pack to the front in an instant. He can transform your circumstances and give you the victory. Don’t quit. Commit your life to Jesus. Run for the prize and finish well!
Beginning next week our focus will shift entirely to Israel’s second and most renown king - the famous and beloved King David. I hope you will join us over the next few months as we explore his leadership over Israel and see the nation begin to grow and prosper. God bless you!