We come to the end of Saul’s life. He dies in battle with the Philistines. His sons join him in death, just as Samuel said they would. The Philistines desecrate their bodies to demonstrate their superiority.
Saul knew his death and that of his sons was coming on THIS day. He had summoned Samuel from the dead to learn about the fate of the battle. But he didn’t turn tail and run. He valiantly fought Israel’s battle until he could fight no more.
Saul also expected the worst from the Philistines. He believed if they captured him alive they would “mistreat” him. He was not wrong. By the time they got to him, he had robbed them of their pleasure so they mistreated the bodies of him and his sons.
Do you remember Jabesh-gilead? They were the ones who mistreated the Levite’s concubine. They were also the first town Saul marched out to defend. They never forgot Saul’s faithfulness to them and they would be the ones to repay that debt after his death. Let’s gird ourselves and join Saul in the thick of things.
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Saul is soul weary. He has known for a long time that his kingdom will not endure. He knew Samuel spoke the truth the day he confronted him but Saul refused to accept this. He has also known that it would be David who would raise Israel back up after Saul’s own death. Saul has railed against this knowledge, until today.
Saul begged and pleaded with God to answer him and tell him Israel’s future. In the dark of night, Saul stole away to the witch of En-dor to have his question answered by Samuel. Samuel’s spirit confirmed what Saul already knew in his heart; this day would end his life. But Saul had not counted on this day ending the lives of his sons too. He had exacted a solemn promise from David not to kill his family when he took the throne. As deeply as he hated the thought of David on the throne, Saul trusted him to keep his word. Now, though, Saul knows his sons will fall with him in battle. Worse still, so will Israel.
Saul wishes with all his might that he could stand on the hill and command the people to flee for their lives. He wishes he could lock his sons in a safe room and hide them away while this battle played out. He can do neither. He has to walk the road before him. He has to bravely stride into battle, no matter what awaits.
Saul rises from his pallet and allows his armor bearer to strap on his armor. The weight of it is nothing compared to the weight sitting upon his mind. He uses all his will to push Samuel’s words to the back of his mind. He has a battle to fight. His captains will be arriving shortly for last minute battle plans. He must be ready, including fixing his eyes with a desire for war. He may not feel the part but he WILL look it!
The battle tactics are simple for today. Saul’s sons will stay near him. He wants them close enough he can keep an eye on them. Their first objective is to maintain the high ground. Mt. Gilboa is where Israel would make its stand. The ranks fanned out to the left and right but were three battalions deep. Saul, his sons, and his elite troops would take the summit.
The remaining forces of Israel would be stationed in front of the hill and would be the push mounted against the Philistines. When the Philistines lines broke all those on the hill would join the push too. The Philistines would have a hard fight on their hands.
Outwardly Saul would hear no arguments that Israel would not prevail. Inside, though, his heart was filled with fear as he took his position of the battlefield. The Philistines took their positions across the valley from Israel. All was in readiness.
The ram’s horn sounded with a long blast and Israel’s soldiers let out a cry of war. The Philistines blew their trumpet and their soldiers issued their own war cry. Both forward forces surged into the connecting valley. Swords clanged, men cried out, and many of them fell to the ground.
In the front ranks on the hillside both groups notched arrows and shot over the heads of those clashing immediately below them. The Philistines’ armor was better at deflecting Israel’s arrows that made it through their shields. Archers had to be extremely accurate to penetrate the joints in Philistine armor. Israel had many such skilled archers but they were not enough to counter the archers of the Philistines. Arrows penetrated Israel’s leather armor with ease.
In the valley, Israel was being pushed back towards Mt. Gilboa. Those waiting in the ranks stood ready to join in the fight. As the Philistines exhausted the available targets before them they surged into the second ranks. The brave men of Israel stood their ground as long as they could. When the Philistines pushed easily through the second ranks and their arrows were flying into the third ranks, the men of Israel turned to flee. They knew the battle was lost and their only chance at life was to leave it behind. The Philistines were too many and too strong.
Saul and his sons stood their ground until the retreating forces reached their position. The Philistines were right behind them. Saul’s family joined in the retreat.
Jonathan, who was doing his best to ensure the safety of those fleeing around him was the first of Saul’s sons to fall. He was struck deep in the chest with an arrow which was followed by a sword thrust through his middle. Abinadab and Malchi-shua fell together as they stood back to back in the midst of the surg. Saul saw them each fall. He had turned when he heard his eldest cry out. His eyes beheld Samuel’s words carried out right in front of him.
Saul could not tear his eyes away from the carnage that stripped his sons of their lives until an arrow pierced him. He was impaled through his upper chest. He felt his lungs burning struggling to sustain him. He knew he could not flee nor fight in his current condition. The Philistines would be on him any moment. He also knew the cruelty of the Philistines and how they treated the rulers of those they conquered. They tortured them and humiliated them before the people. He would not let this be his fate! He looked to his armor bearer for relief.
“Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me” (verse 4a).
“No my king! I cannot do this. The Lord would strike me where I stand. Let me carry you to safety instead.”
“You would never make it and I would be left in their hands.” As soon as he said these words he drew his own sword, turned it around so the tip faced him, rested the hilt on the ground and pushed himself upon it. It went through his midsection and into his chest. He did not stop pushing until his life left him.
His armor bearer watched in horror. Horror for his own cowards as well as his own fate. He had failed his king. When Saul needed him most he had refused to serve him and was incapable of helping him. If he made it from this battle alive he would be killed for his failures. Knowing his fate was sealed either way, he followed his king’s example. He took out his own sword and fell upon it.
The battle raged all day. The cities who were behind the lines and able to see Israel’s soldiers fleeing joined in their retreat. They did not want to be left unprotected when the Philistines reached them. They abandoned everything but their lives. All around was chaos.
When night finally came thousands upon thousands lay dead in the wake of the Philistines. Cities abandoned by Israel now hosted Philistine victory celebrations. Much of Israel had retreated back across the Jordan.
Morning broke and the Philistines went to collect their spoils. Of utmost importance was locating the bodies of the king and his sons. Their fates would be an example to Israel of the cost of rebellion. The kings of the Philistines lamented that these men were not taken alive from the battlefield but they would settle for making a public display of them instead.
Saul and his sons bodies were found where they fell on Mt. Gilboa. Their bodies were taken to where the kings waited and thrown at their feet. The king of Gath had a fitting ‘punishment’ he would inflict on Saul. He pulled Saul’s sword from his body and used it to cut off his head, just as David had done with Goliath. Saul and his sons were stripped of their armor. This would be added to the treasures in their temple of Ashtaroth. Messengers were then sent with pieces torn from their royal garments to carry the good news throughout the land of the Philistines. They would see that all knew of their great victory.
The bodies of Saul, Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua were loaded on carts and brought to the city of Beth-shan. This city was high enough that it was visible by much of Israel, even on the other side of the Jordan. Ropes were looped around each appendage of these men’s bodies. Those ropes were then pulled in opposite directions until the one affixed with them was at the point of being pulled apart. The ropes were then tied to stakes that had been driven into the walls of the city. Saul and his sons were on display for all Israel to see.
One town in Israel wasn’t close enough to be witness to this dishonorable display but heard of it from those who had witnessed it. This town had a special connection with their king. In the earliest days of his reign, even before actually accepting the mantle of king, he came to their rescue. Jabesh-gilead was that town. They would NOT stand idly by while their king and his sons were desecrated. The men of the city banded together and came in the middle of the night to Beth-shan.
They would render to Saul in death the kindness he rendered to them in life. Under cover of darkness they scaled the city walls, cut the ropes and gently lowered Saul and his son’s bodies into waiting arms. The bodies were wrapped in the finest linen Jabesh-gilead could provide and carried away from the city. Carts were waiting to carry these brave men back to Jabesh-gilead but were placed far enough away from Beth-shan that they would not be heard in the night.
Upon reaching Jabesh-gilead the people gathered to honor their king. They stood witness as the bodies were burned, the bones collected from the ashes and all that remained was buried under a tamarisk tree. They knew of Saul’s fondness for a tamarisk tree that grew in his own courtyard and felt this a fitting place to lay him to rest. The entire city fasted for seven days as their final tribute to Saul, the king who redeemed their city.
(to be continued)
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I applaud Saul’s courage in going to war when he knew the outcome. He could have tried to hide himself and his sons but he didn’t. I don’t know if it was courage or being resigned to his fate but he faced it head on. Maybe he was tired of it all and was ready for his end. We aren’t told.
Saul sought the word of the Lord HARD before entering this battle. He wanted to know if He would fight for Israel. I imagine all Israel wanted to know the answer too. Did Saul tell them? If he did, did they abandon their fight right away? Did they believe they could change God’s mind if they fought hard enough?
I was surprised to read about the people fleeing the towns too. I wonder how widespread that evacuation was. Was it only one tribe’s territory or was it any who could see the battle? Israel had let so many other nation’s people live among them, including a Philistine garrison in the beginning of Saul’s reign, but they weren’t willing to see if the Philistines would let them live among them.
I didn’t realize until reading our text this time that Saul’s sons adorned the wall of Beth-shan too. This was a degrading way to treat anyone. I’m glad I never met these angry men in person. I’m very grateful for the town of Jabesh-gilead. No one else stepped up to help. I wonder why not.
Father God, thank You for sharing Your story with me. I have only sorrow for Saul today. He was a tormented man because of his sins. But he didn’t deserve to be treated as he was in death. Jonathan certainly didn’t. Did Saul repent of his sins in his last hours, including the sin of bringing up Samuel from the dead? Did Saul and his sons join Samuel in Abraham’s Bosom? Samuel told Saul he and his sons would be with him the next day. Does that mean I will meet them in Heaven?
I’m not sure what You would have me take from this story today. Maybe it is to accept the consequences of my actions. Saul could not escape his fate. It was his ‘just reward’ for his sins. It was also the only way he would finally leave David alone. David’s story rises out of the ashes of Saul’s. Not because David was Saul’s chosen successor but because David would take no action against Saul. He left him in Your hands. Maybe that is the lesson for today. Do not fret about my ‘enemies.’ Leave them in Your hands. You are STILL on the throne!