The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days. – 1 Samuel 31:8-13 ESV
What Saul feared in life, actually took place in death. Right before he took his own life, he had begged his armor bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me” (1 Samuel 31:4 ESV). He feared being mocked and ridiculed by the Philistines. The Hebrew word he used is `alal and it can mean “to act severely, deal with severely, make a fool of someone” (“H5953 – `alal – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 12 Feb, 2017). It carries the idea of mocking, as well as defilement. And that is exactly what happened. Saul’s death did not stop the inevitable. They stripped his body of its armor, then cut off his head; and the book of Chronicles says, “they put his armor in the temple of their gods and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon” (1 Chronicles 10:10 ESV). The book of Chronicles goes on to provide important insight into the cause behind Saul’s death:
So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse. – 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 ESV
This had not been the only time Saul had failed to keep faith with God. He had personally offered sacrifices to God in direct violation of the law of God (1 Samuel 13). He had also failed to wipe out the Amalekites and to destroy all the spoil from battle, disobeying a direct order from God (1 Samuel 15). And Saul had continually ignored God’s clear announcement that he was going to be replaced as king by a better man. In fact, he had actually tried to stop it from happening by seeking to take the life of the very man God had chosen as his replacement: David.
So there were many reasons for Saul’s abandonment by God. In many ways, he is the one who had left God. He had chosen to live his life and rule his kingdom according to his own standards and based on his own wisdom. He had been rash, impulsive, prone to placing blame and reticent to repent, even when proven guilty. He was prideful, arrogant, self-absorbed and unwilling to humble himself before God. His eventual humiliation at the hands of the Philistines was his own doing. He had brought this on himself. And as his world came to a crashing end on the field of battle, he found himself severely wounded, his sons dead, his army fleeing and the Philistine troops closing in for the kill.
Saul’s decapitated body was hung on the walls of the city of Beth-shan. His head was hung in the temple of Dagon. His armor was put in the temple of Ashtaroth. All as a public display of his defeat and in an effort to humiliate not only Saul, but the God of the people of Israel. It was all very similar to when the Philistines placed the captured Ark of the Covenant in the temple of Dagon (1 Samuel 5). The Ark, a representation of the God of the Israelites, was to the Philistines like an idol, so they placed it at the feet of their god in order to honor his superiority over Yahweh. So, in the same way, by placing Saul’s head in the temple of Dagon was a way to show that their god was greater than the God of Israel. In their minds, Dagon had prevailed over Yahweh. They had won. Saul and the Israelites had lost.
But the story doesn’t end there. When the residents of Jabesh-gilead heard what had been done to Saul and his sons, they had to do something about it. So, at great risk to their own lives, they planned a nighttime raid and took the bodies of Saul and his sons from the walls of Beth-shan and gave them a proper burial. We’re not given a reason for why their bodies were burned. Perhaps it was because they had been so mutilated by the Philistines that they were beyond recognition. Or it could have simply been an attempt to prevent the spread of disease. But whatever the case, their bones were buried and a fast was held for seven days. There would be no great monument erected to Saul. It is interesting to note the difference between the death of Saul and that of a king like Asa.
And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign. They buried him in the tomb that he had cut for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier that had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer’s art, and they made a very great fire in his honor. – 2 Chronicles 16:13-14 ESV
It would become customary for the deceased kings of Israel to have elaborate burials and expensive tombs built in their honor. Such was not the case for Saul. He and his sons were buried under a tree in a non-disclosed spot. No pomp. No elaborate ceremony. No monument to mark their memory. Just like that, Saul was gone, his memory wiped from the minds of his people, but his legacy of faithlessness and disobedience left behind in the captured cities of Israel, the lost lives of hundreds of soldiers, and the demoralized remnants of the Jews who no longer had a king. But God was not done. This was not an end, but a new beginning. While all looked lost and the future looked dim, God had things right where He wanted them. The Israelites would not be without a king for long, and this time, they would find themselves with a king who was a man after God’s own heart.
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.