Saul’s Death Wish (1 Samuel 31)
In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, the author tells his story in a way similar to the way major television networks cover the Olympics. Since many different events take place at the same time, there is no way the network can cover all events simultaneously. But the marvels of modern communication provide a solution: one event is covered live as it is taking place, while the other events are video taped. They are then interwoven in a very careful manner, so that every event is covered in a way that does not appear disjointed. Were we not informed that some events are taped, we might easily think they happen in the sequence they appear.
The author of 1 Samuel has been doing something similar. He has been simultaneously tracking the lives of two men – Saul and David – who most often are in two different places. His primary interest is not to lay out a chronological sequence of events in the precise order they occur, but rather to tell his story in a way that contrasts Saul with David. So it is that in the closing chapters of 1 Samuel we move back and forth between Saul and David, and in the process, the precise order of events is lost because the author does not consider it important to his story.
We can discern in some instances with little effort the sequence of events in these last chapters; in others, it is impossible. Either way, we should take a clue from our author that this is not key to understanding our text. If we can link the events of David’s life to those of Saul, fine; if not, it should not bother us.
What we should strive toward in our text is seeing the link between the story of Saul’s death and its implications for us today. We can be assured there is a very clear link between the death of Saul and the life of the person reading the author’s account of it, written centuries ago. Further, our text raises one of the hottest moral and legal issues of our time. Stay with me then as we try to understand the meaning and message of this passage for our lives.
1 Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua the sons of Saul. 3 And the battle went heavily against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was badly wounded by the archers.
When David and his men part company with the Philistines at Achish, the Philistines head north to Jezreel, while David and his men turn south toward Ziklag. I imagine each reaches their destination about the same time. This means that Saul and the Israelite army are fighting Philistines just about the same time David and his men are in pursuit of the Amalekite raiders. We know this is at least approximately the case since we are told that David learns of Saul’s death on the third day after he and his men arrive back at Ziklag, victorious over the Amalekites (2 Samuel 1:1-2). God providentially removes David from this conflict by occupying his attention even farther to the south. David is thus not allowed to fight with or against the Philistines. It is God’s will that in this battle between Israel and the Philistines, the Philistines will win and Saul and his sons will die in the battle.
Many tragic details of this battle are omitted. The men of Israel flee from the attacking Philistines. Many Israelite soldiers fall dead on Mount Gilboa; whatever defense shield they were to provide for Saul now collapses (remember 26:5). The Philistines begin to press their attack against Saul and his sons. Saul may have retreated to the highest, most protected spot on Mt. Gilboa, looking on in terror while his sons attempt to provide a last line of defense for their father. This effort fails and the three sons of Saul lay dead as the archers spot Saul and begin to use him for target practice. None of Saul’s wounds are instantly fatal, though Saul is no longer able to attack, much less defend, himself. It is only a matter of time, and Saul knows it.
Saul’s Last Request
4 Then Saul said to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make sport of me.” But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it. 5 And when his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him. 6 Thus Saul died with his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men on that day together.
Saul’s “request” is really a command. He instructs his armor bearer to draw his sword and to run him through with it. This may not be such an unusual request, then or now. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Judges, Abimelech makes this same request. Abimelech is one of many sons of Gideon, though his mother is a concubine. He convinces his relatives in Shechem to make him their ruler, and then kills the 70 brothers “on one stone” (verses 1-5). The relationship between the leaders of Shechem and Abimelech turn sour, which results in a battle. Abimelech defeats the men of Shechem and surrounds the leaders in the city tower. Abimelech is in the process of burning them out when a woman drops an upper millstone from the tower, and it strikes Abimelech on the head. He is critically wounded and knows he is dying. To avoid the stigma of having been put to death by a woman, he orders his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill him. This young man obliges Abimelech, and he dies. Abimelech’s death is far from noble and it is not a precedent to which any would likely appeal.
Saul is in a similar situation. A number of Philistine arrows find their mark, and Saul is critically wounded. One way or the other, Saul knows his death is near, and so he orders his armor bearer to finish him off. He gives two reasons for this, which he seems to feel are compelling: (1) He does not want to die at the hand of some “uncircumcised” heathen; and (2) he does not want his enemies to be able to make sport of him (verse 4). His reasons are not compelling enough for Saul’s armor bearer, however. One would hope to hear a response from the armor bearer which mentions the fact that Saul is the “Lord’s anointed” (compare 2 Samuel 1:14, 16). We cannot be certain therefore that the armor bearer refuses to act out of principle. We are told he fails to act out of fear. In fact, we are told he is greatly afraid (verse 4).
Saul is desperate. He has no strength left to fight the Philistines and very little strength to kill himself. There is one thing he can do; he can fall on his own sword, which he does. As I preached this message, at this point I am sure some of the congregation thought I had totally lost my senses, as I tossed my head back and laughed. Seeing puzzled looks from the audience, I explained that I couldn’t help myself, because even here Saul cannot do it right. Saul missed! Can you imagine that? Not only does Saul miss David with his spear (at least twice) and Jonathan, he now cannot even hit the mark when aiming at himself.
I say this not because of what we read in chapter 31, but from what we read in 2 Samuel 1. We know from Amalekite’s words that Saul does not finish the job of killing himself. This young man comes upon Saul, leaning on his spear (2 Samuel 1:6). Saul tries to do himself in and simply cannot do the job right. If God would not allow Saul to take the life of David, God’s anointed, neither will He allow Saul to take his own life, for he too is God’s anointed. What Saul’s armor bearer will not do to Saul, he does to himself. The armor bearer dies, leaving Saul alone, at least for a moment.
The Aftermath of Defeat
7 And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, with those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned the cities and fled; then the Philistines came and lived in them. 8 And it came about on the next day when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 And they cut off his head, and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. 10 And they put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
The author of our text uses a technique popular with writers of television dramas. Do you remember seeing television movies where the hero is in a very precarious spot, then suddenly something terrible happens, and the reader is left to assume the worst . . . all through the commercials? But somehow, after the commercial break, we discover the hero didn’t really die as we had been led to assume. This is what our author does in our text. We are left to assume that Saul finishes himself off, followed thereafter by his armor bearer. Then, suddenly in chapter 1 of 2 Samuel, we find Saul is not really dead at all.
A young Amalekite comes to David with Saul’s crown and bracelet and the story of how Saul finally dies. He arrives at Ziklag to inform David of Israel’s defeat by the Philistines and tells David he has escaped from the camp of Israel. He happened upon Saul he reports, and the king was leaning on his sword near death, but his life was still lingering. Saul begged him to come near and kill him, and the young man obliged. He then comes to David, thinking he might be rewarded. Surely David will be delighted to learn that his enemy is dead. This is the young man’s second mistake of the day, and both of them cost him his life.
The death of Saul and his sons is reminiscent of the death of Eli and his sons in chapter 4. In both instances, death and defeat comes at the hands of the Philistines. In both cases, fathers and sons die in the same day. In both defeats, not only the leader dies, but many Israelites as well. The Philistines’ victory is an individual disaster (for Saul and Eli, Saul’s sons, and Eli’s sons), and a national disaster (for Israel).
Clearly the author of our text is choosing to focus on Saul more than on his sons or the nation Israel. For example, we are not told how Jonathan dies, although we would very much like to know and although we would expect him to die like the champion he was, fighting to his last breath. Before we look at the way Saul dies, let us pause to recall that when Saul is killed, many Israelites also die, and many other Israelites turn and flee, as we are told in verse 7. Those on the other side of the valley and across the Jordan (who are not the focus of the Philistine attack) see the defeat of Israel and the death of Saul and his sons, and know there is no hope of defeating the Philistines. They flee for their lives, abandoning their cities, which the Philistines then occupy. This great defeat not only reduces the size of Israel’s army, it reduces the size of Israel.
It is important to note here that Israel, as well as Saul, is being divinely disciplined. You may remember that Saul was the king the Israelites demanded in chapter 8, and that their demand to have a king was evidence that they had rejected God as their king (1 Samuel 8:7-8). It is not just for Saul’s sins that Israel is defeated and many die; it is for Israel’s sins as well. In 1 Samuel 12, Samuel very closely links the conduct and destiny of Israel and their king:
13 “Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen, whom you have asked for, and behold, the LORD has set a king over you. 14 “If you will fear the LORD and serve Him, and listen to His voice and not rebel against the command of the LORD, then both you and also the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God. 15 “And if you will not listen to the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the command of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you, as it was against your fathers. 16 “Even now, take your stand and see this great thing which the LORD will do before your eyes. 17 “Is it not the wheat harvest today? I will call to the LORD, that He may send thunder and rain. Then you will know and see that your wickedness is great which you have done in the sight of the LORD by asking for yourselves a king.” 18 So Samuel called to the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. 19 Then all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, so that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil by asking for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 “And you must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile. 22 “For the LORD will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the LORD has been pleased to make you a people for Himself. 23 “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way. 24 “Only fear the LORD and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. 25 “But if you still do wickedly, both you and your king shall be swept away” (1 Samuel 12:13-25, emphasis mine).
In verses 8-10, we see that Saul does not get what he wants. He does not receive what he asks from his armor bearer in his two-fold request:
(1) He does not wish to be killed by the uncircumcised.
(2) He does not want anyone to make sport of him (perhaps like the Philistines did with Samson – Judges 16:23-25).
Saul is not granted his request. First, he is killed by the uncircumcised. Saul’s sword does not kill him nor does the sword of his armor bearer. The arrows of the Philistines (31:3) and the sword of the Amalekite (2 Samuel 1:9-10) kill Saul. Saul is indeed killed by uncircumcised hands. This is all as God meant it to be and how God said it would be:
17 “And the LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. 18 “As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 “Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!” (1 Samuel 28:17-19)
It is not a matter of coincidence that Saul is killed by the hands of the Philistines (28:19) and by the hand of an Amalekite (28:18). A kind of poetic justice is described here. Saul is reaping what he himself has sewn. He is killed by uncircumcised hands because God said this was the way he would die. No matter how hard Saul tries to change his destiny, he cannot succeed at thwarting God’s will or His word. Is his death not one more attempt to disobey God, one final act of rebellion?
Like the first, Saul’s second request that his enemies not make sport of him is denied. First, Saul is hit by a number of Philistine arrows, which literally drain the life out of Saul. His slow, agonizing death is not a pretty sight. Saul does not go out looking good. After Saul is dead, his armor is stripped from his body and his head cut off. The Philistines must really enjoy this. And then they take Saul’s armor and his head and parade them around their cities, taking them into the temple of their god. All of this mocks not only Saul. but his God. The final indignity for Saul is that his body, along with the bodies of his sons, is fastened to the wall of Bethshan. The indignities Saul suffers in death could hardly be worse.
One Bright Light – An Act of Heroism
11 Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all the valiant men rose and walked 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. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
This is not a pretty sight nor is it a “happily ever after” fairy tale ending. But it is how it all finally ends for Saul. Lest the reader be overcome with sadness over the indignities Saul suffers and the defeat and death which comes to Israel, the author gives a heart-warming account of a very courageous act on the part of the men of Jabesh-gilead. When these men learn that Saul and his sons have been killed, and that their bodies have been publicly displayed on the wall of Bethshan, they know what they must do. They march through the night to Bethshan and then return to Jabesh-gilead. This is probably more than a 20-mile round trip. They take down the bodies of Saul and his sons and carry them all the way back to Jabesh. There, they burn the bodies and then bury the bones under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh.170
What prompts the men of this city to do that of which no one else has even thought? The people of this city hold fond memories of Saul and his contribution to them. The incident is described in 1 Samuel 11. Nahash, commander of the Ammonites, and his army besiege Jabesh-gilead and demand their surrender. It is more than just an “unconditional surrender” he demands, however. He insists he gouge out the right eye of every Israelite in the city. The elders of Jabesh ask for some time to think about it and to appeal to their brethren for help. Word goes out to Israel and reaches Saul’s ear, who though he is still working at home, has been appointed king of Israel. Saul becomes angry in the Spirit and cuts up his oxen, sending pieces to every tribe in Israel. He warns that anyone who does not appear to defend Jabesh-gilead will find his oxen slaughtered as well. Israelites numbering 330,000 show up for battle, and the city of Jabesh is rescued.
The men of Jabesh do not forget what Saul did for them. In their hour of need, Saul came with the help that saved them. Now, in Saul’s hour of need, they find a way to help him. The bodies of Saul and his sons, suspended on the city wall of Bethshan, are there to be mocked. The men of Jabesh march through the night, take down the bodies of the king and his sons, and bring them back to Jabesh, where they bury them -- a magnificent gesture of appreciation and respect on their part. As Saul’s boldness toward the Ammonites at Jabesh is Saul’s finest hour (so far as 1 Samuel is concerned), this is the finest hour for the men of Jabesh.
Let us now highlight a few of the lessons this text holds for us, just as it held for the ancient Israelites.
First, should learn from Saul’s death, which is the central focus of our passage. Saul died, just as God said he would. The timing of Saul’s death is precisely as predicted. Saul dies in the manner God said he would. He dies at the hands of the Philistines and an Amalekite. Saul dies in a manner entirely consistent with the way he lived his life. Even at the very end of his life, Saul does not really die like a man of courage. He does not want to suffer pain, and so he begs others to take his life and even tries to do so himself.
God’s word is absolutely reliable. God will do as He has promises. He will deal with sin and rebellion in judgment; He will deal with trust and obedience in blessing. Saul is removed from his throne and from life; David is preserved from Saul’s plots and soon installed as king of Judah (and then of Israel). Before the first man ever sinned, God declared that the penalty for sin was death (Genesis 2:16-17). From that point on, God has spoken clearly to men with respect to sin. His word not only defines sin, it spells out the consequences for sin – death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). God gave Saul time to repent, but he did not. And so his death came to pass, even as God had said. If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, God is now giving you opportunity to repent. You may, like Saul, choose to use this time for repentance as the opportunity to add to your sins. But be assured, your sins will find you out. The wages of sin is death. If you repent, by acknowledging your sin and trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation, you will have eternal life. Be assured that God’s promises – both of judgment and of salvation – are certain. Saul reminds us of this truth.
Second, we gain insight into our text as we consider the parallel text in 1 Chronicles 10:
13 So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, 14 and did not inquire of the LORD. Therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse (1 Chronicles 10:13-14).
The first 12 verses of 1 Chronicles 10 are virtually identical with our text in 1 Samuel 31. Verses 13 and 14 (above) are not. These verses make several matters, implied in 1 Samuel, absolutely clear. In the final analysis, men did not put Saul to death (whether Philistine, Israelite, or Amalekite); it was God. And they also inform us that God put Saul to death because of his sin, his persistent sin. Finally, we are told that God put Saul to death not only to fulfill His warnings to him, but also to fulfill His promises to David.
Why does the author of 1 Samuel not include this statement? I think he believes we should figure that out for ourselves. How can we not reach this conclusion, based upon all that has been said and done before this chapter? But lest some fail to get the point, the conclusion we should reach is stated clearly in a parallel account so that no one can miss the point.
This passage directly addresses a problem that is very much in focus in our own day and time. Let me just mention a name, and the issue should be evident: Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The issue is that of assisted suicide. In courts and legislative bodies in America, Canada, and elsewhere in the world, men are grappling with the issue of assisted suicide.
It would be helpful to our consideration if we were very clear on our definition of assisted suicide. I found this definition on the Internet, as I was doing a little research: Assisted suicide is the act of killing oneself intentionally with the assistance of another who provides the means, the knowledge, or both.
Assisted suicide is not the same thing as euthanasia. Euthanasia is taking the life of another, without their request or consent. Assisted suicide is initiated and requested by the one who wishes to die. Assisted suicide is not allowing death to take its course naturally, by refusing special measures. Assisted suicide is causing the death of another, by taking special measures.
Saul requests assisted suicide. Our text makes it clear that he is wrong in so doing. He is wrong because he is attempting to minimize the pain of divine judgment. He is wrong because he is attempting to alter the means of divine judgment. He wants to die in a manner that is different from what God has foretold. He is wrong because he is trying to kill the Lord’s anointed. As it was wrong for anyone else (like David, or the young Amalekite) to do harm to the king, it is wrong for the king himself. It is likewise wrong for the armor bearer of the king to take the king’s life or for the young Amalekite to do so. The Amalekite paid for his sin with his life. Our text gives no sanction to assisted suicide. Both in Judges 9 and here, it is not the way to deal with pain, even though death is imminent in both cases.
It is important to recognize the hypocrisy in Saul’s request to die as evident in his two requests, first of his armor bearer, and finally of the Amalekite. Let us put these two requests next to each other and compare them:
Then Saul said to his armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make sport of me.’ But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it. (1 Samuel 31:4)
Then he said to me, ‘Please stand beside me and kill me; for agony has seized me because my life still lingers in me.’ (2 Samuel 1:9)
Saul’s second request exposes the hypocrisy of the first. The first request is made of Saul’s armor bearer, who most certainly is an Israelite. He does not wish to be put to death by the “uncircumcised.” Yet he requests an Amalekite (an uncircumcised Gentile) to put him to death. The real reason Saul wants to be assisted in committing suicide is given in his second request: he does not wish to suffer the pain. He wants to die to end the pain, to end his suffering. Bluntly, he is more interested in avoiding pain than in obeying God (not harming God’s anointed). Just as Saul was willing to kill David because of the “pain” he caused him, now he is willing to kill himself because of the “pain” he is suffering.
It is wrong for Christians to commit suicide, whether assisted or not. It is wrong for Christians to assist in committing suicide. When men and women come to the place where they would rather die than live, we need to spend our efforts pointing them to Christ, to eternal life. When Christians come to the place where death seems near and where pain is intense, we should look forward to being at home with the Lord, but not by our own hand. We need not allow medical technology to prolong pain and the death process, but we should not seek to end the life which God gives, and which only God takes away (Job 1:21). Whenever men wish to die in the Bible, it is not commended; it is clearly seen as a failure of faith.
There are undoubtedly some reading this message who have considered (or are considering) taking the easy way out. This text should speak clearly to you. But I would like to suggest that many others act in a very similar and sinful way, and don’t recognize their actions as suicidal. Saul’s sin, at heart, is trying to escape from the circumstances, the pain he created for himself and that God ordained as divine discipline. Saul wants to “avoid the pain” in a sinful manner, and many of us do too. Some seek to avoid pain spiritually. Paul believes in and practices supernatural healing. He petitions God to remove his own thorn in the flesh, but he is denied (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). God has a higher purpose for Paul’s pain, and that is to humble him and to bring about even greater manifestations of His power and grace. Why will some saints not accept that God does not despise all pain, that He does not remove all pain, but purposes to use it for our good and His glory? Why do we seek to spiritualize our sin by acting as though our resistance to divinely sent pain is an act of faith? Let us not seek to escape what God gives us to endure.
There are other means of “escape” which are very common today, even among Christians. Some attempt to escape emotional pain by divorce or separation. Others, wishing to maintain the appearance of marriage, simply wall themselves off from their mate (and perhaps their family) to “avoid the pain.” This, I suggest, is just another form of suicide. Illicit sexual relationships, drugs, alcohol, and other addictive patterns are, in reality, unbiblical, ungodly attempts to escape from pain. Whether it is the momentary thrill and pleasure of an illicit sexual experience or the high of drugs or alcohol, it is a momentary escape. But the Bible tells us that it is really suicidal in that it is takes a step toward death (see Proverbs 7).
I have never liked the term “enabler” because it seeks to describe sin in secular rather than biblical terms. I wonder, however, if what some call an enabler is not the same as what Saul wishes his armor bearer to be, and what the Amalekite becomes – one who assists in suicide. To see a brother in sin, and not to act in a way that turns him from sin, is to aid him in his pursuit of death. Let us give serious thought to whether we enable the sin and death of others, or whether we encourage them to pursue the path of life, in Christ.
Finally, I see in Saul a very pronounced contrast to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Saul’s sin and his desire to die is selfish, self-serving. His sin brings about not only his own death, but also the death of his sons and many Israelites, and the suffering of many more. Saul’s leadership is not a blessing, but a curse to Israel. How different was the death of our Lord. It was not our Lord’s desire to die, humanly speaking. He was not suicidal. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this “cup” of death be removed from Him (Matthew 26:39). He died in obedience to the will of the Father, not in disobedience (Matthew 26:39; John 6:38; Philippians 2:3-8). He did not die to save Himself from pain; He died to endure to the full the pain that we deserve as punishment for our sins (Isaiah 53; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:17-18). This is why He refused the wine mingled with gall (Matthew 27:33-34). He was not willing to take any “medication” which would dull the pain He must bear on our behalf. His death is not a tragic failure on his part, which we try to forget (as with a suicide), but a magnificent sacrifice for us, which we celebrate every week at communion. His death was not self-serving, but sacrificial. It was a death He suffered for our sins and for our salvation. And all we need to do is to accept it as God’s means for forgiving our sins and providing us with eternal life.
There is often a point of crisis to which God brings the sinner, a point at which suicide may be considered as a way out. People see the sin they have committed and feel hopelessly bound in the power, guilt, and consequences of these sins. They may think death (their death by suicide) is the only way out. It is not the way out, because death terminates our opportunity to repent and be saved:
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
The solution to your problem is not to die in sin; it is to die to sin. The only way you can do this is by faith in Christ -- as you acknowledge your sin and guilt and trust in Him who has died in your place, who has suffered the eternal pain for your sins. It is in Christ that you die to sin, and enter into eternal life. If you have never done this, I urge you to do it now. As God’s promise of salvation is sure, so is His promise of judgment and eternal death. Let us learn from Saul’s death.
170 I know it sounds insensitive and judgmental, but there appears to be a kind of poetic justice here, in that Saul is buried under “the tamarisk tree” (verse 13). It seems that Saul spent much of his time under a tree, some of which should have been spent doing battle with his enemies (see 14:2; 22:6).