Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them. – 1 Samuel 31:1-7 ESV
While David and his men were pursuing and defeating the Amalikites, Saul and the Israelites were doing battle with the Philistines. David had sought the help of God and had found success. Saul had sought the help of a witch and would die in battle, along with his three sons. And David was busy distributing the spoil of his victory among his men and the elders of Judah, Saul’s defeat and death would result in the mass evacuation of the cities near the battle and the occupation of those cities by the Philistines. Two men. Two completely different outcomes. And both taking place simultaneously.
What is interesting to note when reading this passage is the easy-to-miss reference to King Saul’s armor bearer. Verse six reads: “Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together.” What makes this verse interesting is the fact that, at one time, David had been Saul’s armor bearer.
And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. – 1 Samuel 16:21 ESV
While just a passing reference in the text of 1 Samuel 31, it is significant to realize that David’s somewhat difficult-to-understand exile from the palace of Saul had been a literal godsend. God had ordained David’s disassociation from Saul in order to spare David the same fate as Saul. All those close to Saul, including his son, Jonathan, would die as a result of his stubborn rebellion against the will of God. Had God not removed His Spirit from Saul and allowed an evil spirit to torment him, David could have remained in his service. David could have been a part of that very same battle with the Philistines. But it had been God’s plan all along to separate David from Saul, so that he might be spared and prepared to be Saul’s eventual replacement.
This entire scenario had been the work of God. He had even warned Saul that it was going to happen. In fact, when Saul sought out the aid of the witch of Endor, and asked her to conjure up the departed spirit of Samuel, the prophet, God intervened. Much to her surprise and shock, she was actually able to call up Samuel and he gave Saul a chilling prediction:
“Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.” – 1 Samuel 28:18-19 ESV
The end to Saul’s reign was at hand. As part of His divine plan, God had determined that the time had come for Saul to step down and David to take over. And this time, when Saul faced the Philistines in battle, there would be no young shepherd boy to save him. There would be no defeat of the Philistine champion. Saul would be forced to go into battle, without the aid of the Lord, and witness the complete destruction of his army by the enemies of God. And it should not escape our attention that Saul, while wounded in battle, was not killed as part of the battle. He lived to see his sons die. He had to remain alive to the very last, watching as his kinsmen were slaughtered in front of him or as the deserted the battle field in fright. And when all was lost, Saul was not allowed the dignity of falling in battle at the hands of his enemies. He would be forced to end his own life by falling on his own sword. Saul’s nearly 40-year reign over Israel (1 Samuel 13:1) came to an abrupt and ignominious end. Even in the moments before his death, Saul feared man more than he feared God. He was more worried about being captured by the Philistines and facing mistreatment and death at their hands, than what was going to happen to him when he had to stand before God Almighty. Perhaps Saul had deluded himself into believing that he had been a faithful king and obedient servant of God. Maybe he had convinced himself of being a man of integrity. But whatever the case, Saul was facing a judgment far worse than anything the Philistines could do to him. It was Jesus who warned, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NLT).
Saul died. Just as the prophet had foretold. Israel was defeated. The Philistines were victorious. But God was still sovereign. He was not surprised at the outcome. He was not panicked by what had happened or suddenly forced to come up with a new plan to deal with this significant setback. It had all been part of His divine plan and sovereign will. God had given the people what they demanded: A king. But they didn’t want just any king, they wanted a king like all the nations. And that is exactly what God gave them, while clearly telling Samuel the prophet, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7 ESV). The peoples’ 40-year experience with the world’s brand of leadership was coming to an abrupt end. And God was preparing to replace their kind of king with His own. A man after his own heart. Not a perfect man. Not a sinless man. But a man whose heart had been trained to rely upon and rest in the will of God. A man who had learned the invaluable lessons of trusting God rather than relying upon self. A man who had experienced first-hand the futility of self-preservation and the more preferable choice to rely upon God’s salvation.
Saul was done, but God was not. Israel was down, but not out. Their best days lie ahead of them. The king they wanted was dead. But the king they needed was alive and well closer than they could have ever imagined. And it was all part of God’s perfect plan.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.