King Saul, who began his reign with great promise and potential, was brutally and disgracefully defeated by the Philistines. His tragic story is a warning to all of us, cautions Alistair Begg. The Bible teaches that death is not the end of existence; therefore, placing hope in human power is folly. Confronted by political chaos, social disintegration, and our own mortality, we are reminded that our hope and refuge is Jesus, the only King who triumphed over death and hell.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Our Scripture reading is from the final chapter of 1 Samuel, 1 Samuel 31, which in the ESV bears the heading “The Death of Saul.” And I read from verse 1:
“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.
“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.”
Our gracious God, we pray now that as we turn to the sweet consolation of your Word, that the very words that we have sung together and have found echoes in our hearts may in a very tangible way become our own by the power of the Holy Spirit. Help us now as we look to the Bible. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, if like me—and I know some of you are like me—you read obituaries, you know that the best of them are like minibiographies. And I learn a tremendous amount—and so do you if you read them—about people in relatively short order. The saddest of them give to us the account of an individual whose life was brimful of promise and potential in the early days, and then, as we read on, we discover that that potential was never realized, in certain cases it was actually squandered, and in the end, the record is one of desperate sadness.
Now, the life of Saul, I think, actually fits that description. It’s quite a while since we were introduced to him. Perhaps you’ll remember back in chapter 9, when we pondered for a moment just the way in which he’s introduced: “There was a man of … Kish” who had this son, and his name was Saul. He was “a handsome young man,” no one more so, and “from his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” So, a tremendous start. He received an anointing. He received a divine commission, and his divine commission was to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines. And we have to understand that he did want to do that.
But along the way, it has all gone terribly wrong. And by the time we reach this final chapter in 1 Samuel—and incidentally, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel form one book, so we keep going until we get to the end. But now we find him very different from standing head and shoulders above, but rather dying on the battlefield before those whom he was asked to go and vanquish.
I had just two pictures in my mind, and triggered because of this reference to the tamarisk tree in verse . You will perhaps remember that one of the pictures not so long ago, in chapter 22, was of him sitting under the tamarisk tree with his spear in his hand and surrounded by his servants—so, still with potential, still with a measure of authority, still heading forward. So there he sits under the tamarisk tree, and now, with his body burned, his bones are buried under the tamarisk tree.
It’s a fairly short chapter compared to many of them, and so we work our way through it. In verse 1 we have a summary of the Philistine victory. You will have noticed that as we’ve gone through this, the writer often does this; he tells us what has happened by way of summary, and then we get, later on, the details of how that has unfolded. So without rehearsing the timeline that goes back a long way through these chapters, let’s just understand this: that while this is happening in chapter 31, the events that we have seen in chapter 30 were happening simultaneously. If you doubt that, you’re just going to have to reread. So while David is securing a great victory in chapter 30, Saul is now suffering defeat at the hands of the enemy.
Now, one of the things that I’ll say a lot this morning is “Do you remember…” or “I hope you remember…” And it’s because now we have the benefit of hindsight, at least in going back through the book. So I wonder, do you remember that Samuel had informed Saul of what awaited him on the field of battle? You remember back in chapter 28, where the battle lines are drawn there in 28:4: “The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all [of] Israel.” And you remember in that context, David is trapped there at that point because he is serving with Achish. And then, before we understand what happens on that battlefield, we are then told that Saul, who has been absolutely terrified at the prospect of the battle, has gone looking for answers. He went looking for answers in his distress. And you remember he went to the medium in En-dor, and in the context of that—and we can’t go back through it all—down in 28:19, he had heard from this, as it were, resurrected Samuel, “The Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, … tomorrow you and your sons…” So that verdict had been sounded in his ears, and now here he is on that battlefield.
One of the benefits of having gone through all of this is that it triggers little things in our minds. It’s a long time since we thought of the end of the affair back in chapter 4, when, once again, you have all of Israel fleeing. The context then is Eli and his sons, and their death, and the capture of the ark. And so we’ve gone from Eli to Samuel, and from Samuel to Saul. And as we’ve gone through it, the whole story is crying out for a better leader than any of these. Because remember, those were the circumstances—the fact that they were vanquished—that caused the people to say, “We need a king like all the rest of these people. If we could only get a king the way other people have, then we could sort all of this.” Well, of course, we know the rest of the story.
So the summary is in verse 1, and then, in verses 2 through to verse 7, we have, if you like, the tragedy that describes Israel’s loss. So the summary of the Philistines’ victory is there, just in a verse—there they were scattered, vanquished, slain on the mountain—and now here we have it: the details.
Now, I think ten points should be given to the three sons, and perhaps particularly to Jonathan, for rallying alongside their father in this battle—especially when you think of Jonathan. The last time that we saw him was in chapter 23, where he’s seeking to strengthen the hand of David, you will remember. And he says to him, “Do not fear …. You shall be [the] king …, and I shall be [with] you”—or, “I’ll be at your right hand to help you.” But, of course, that was not to be. And so here he dies alongside his brothers, as we see.
Jonathan, Abinadab, Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul, are gone. The battle is pressing hard against Saul. You’ve got the picture of him fleeing. He’s not gonna be reached by foot soldiers, but he can be reached by the archers. They’re firing at him. He takes a number of these arrows to himself, and now he is badly wounded. And with the life, as it were, ebbing from him, he’s still giving out orders: he orders his armor-bearer to draw his sword and kill him with it. And the armor-bearer, as you see from the text, refuses to do so.
If this was a class, I would ask the class, “And do you remember who was Saul’s first armor-bearer?” And some bright girl in the class would say, “Yes, David was his first armor-bearer.” And then I would say, “And how did the first armor-bearer deal with Saul? Would he have taken Saul’s life?” And then another bright button in the group would say, “No, no, no, we saw that. We saw it in Engedi, and then we saw it at Ziph, when the armor-bearer—namely, David—had the opportunity to take Saul out in that circumstance.” And what did he say? Well, he said that it would be absolutely wrong: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to … the Lord’s anointed.” “I would not put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed.”
And so this armor-bearer, I think that explains his fear. Others have different perspectives. I don’t know. But Saul is now seeking to preserve his dignity, to save himself from mistreatment. And so, the armor-bearer refusing to do this, “Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.” You remember way back in chapter 17, and Saul kits David out with his stuff: “You should wear my armor. You should take my sword.” So the sword that David refused against Goliath, Saul now uses to take his own life. And his armor-bearer follows suit: “And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he … fell upon his sword and died with him.”
And then just in three words—look at those three words at the beginning of 6: “Thus Saul died.” “Thus Saul died.” It doesn’t actually say “Then Saul died.” “Thus…” In other words, as we read this, we’re supposed to pause and say, “Really?” Yes! Along with him, his three sons, the men in his entourage—he dragged them all down with him.
Now, as tragic as this is, it does not take us by surprise, because we’ve been reading 1 Samuel together. And Samuel in his farewell address had warned the people—warned them—that wickedness, that wickedness on their part, would be the cause of their being swept away: he says, “You [will] be swept away, both you and your king”—12:25. And the words of the prophet are brought to bear, and so we stand in awe of this. If this is not a catastrophe, if this is not a tragedy, what is? The young man who begins head and shoulders above everybody else—the talk of the town, the high school quarterback, the obvious choice, the one who could lead, the one who could vanquish the enemy, the one with so much going for him—lies dead on the mountainside.
Now, I think it is only right that we pause for a moment on this—let the picture sink into our minds, not out of a kind of morbid curiosity, like onlookers at the scene of a car crash, but as mortals. We’re not supposed to be able to pass over scenes of death unwittingly and unfeelingly, because we ourselves are mortal. Death is the destiny of every man, and the living should take this to heart. Because the tragedy of death in the Bible is a reminder that every death is a tragedy.
Now, we need to think this out—and we won’t delay on it, but I want to say a word or two. Because it is perfectly common to hear the view espoused in our day that death is simply the end of life. It’s just what happens. It is the cessation of existence. It is a natural part of things. Many who are well-meaning in end-of-life affairs are constantly telling people in the final embers of their day simply to breathe in and embrace it.
Now, the Bible challenges this in its entirety. Humanism—which is really another name for a form of atheism—is very clear in standing full square against the instruction of the Bible: human beings are simply another part of nature, and death is nature’s way of cleansing; through death we clear the way for new life; the deceased live only in the memories of loved ones left behind.
Now, understand as you ponder these things—as you say, “Well, what do we… You know, we’re studying this ancient book as twenty-first century dwellers.” Remember a verse that we haven’t quoted in a while: that the things that happened in the past were written down so that “through endurance and … the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So when we come to a scene like this, it would be crazy if we didn’t stop for a moment. Because the Bible says that death is not the cessation of existence. In fact, the very reverse is the case. Jesus, 12 of Luke: “I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
The Bible knows nothing of death as the cessation of existence. In the Bible you will find no indication that death is inherent in creation, that it is part of creation’s grand design. No. Genesis chapter 2 makes it clear. God speaks to Adam and Eve in the garden, and he tells them, “In the day that you disobey me—in the day that you do what I’m telling you not to do—you shall surely die.” People say, “Well, you know, that’s that stuff at the beginning of Genesis.” Well, I’ll leave that comment aside. But when Paul, who is a mighty intellect and a man of God, reflects on that, he gives it to us in Romans 5:12, and this is what he says: “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, … so death spread to all men because all [men] sinned.”
So, to quote Jim Packer, and I’ll move on: Packer, wonderfully helpful in a little book—you can find it, it’s called 18 Words… 18 Words. He deals with crucial words. This is what he writes:
In the deepest sense, all death is unnatural. … It is a dissolving of the union between spirit and body. … It is sometimes said that the dead look peaceful, but [that] is hardly correct. What is true is that corpses look vacant. It is their evident emptiness that we find unnerving—the sense that the person whose body and face this was has simply gone.
So all this stuff—you know, “Don’t worry, I’m just in the next room”—which is an attempt to make us feel better as we show video clips of them when they were, you know, robust and running at the beach in Delaware or something—which we understand! But it’s the great disguise. It is the great escape.
Oh the games people play now,
Every night and every day now,
Never [thinking] what they say now,
Never saying what they mean.
And they while away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up in flowers
In the back of a black limousine,
when it is too late to deal with the one eventuality that every human being faces—namely, death.
It was Robert Frost who wrote—what, in the ’30s?—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s a great poem. If I could write poetry, I’d write a poem called “Stopping by Graves on a Routine Tuesday.” America has given much to the world, but it has done a masterful job at sequestering death, hiding it, putting it away somewhere, so that we never have to face what we face here in this story.
Now back to the text. We’re told that the impact of death on the men on the other side of the valley, there beyond the Jordan, it brought them down as well. They said, “Well, if Saul’s gone, his sons are gone, we might as well be gone.” And so we’re told that they abandoned their cities. And as had been the case before in the story, they became occupied territory.
And “thus Saul died.” Disobedience. Downfall. Death. Disgrace. But you know, credit where credit is due: he died in the context where he was trying to be the king. “You will be the one that vanquishes the Philistines.” He tried. He failed.
Now, in verse 8 we see—and 9 and, what, 10?—you see the brutality of the Philistine army. The brutality of these people. The mopping-up operation begins, and in the process they come on Saul and they find his sons. What a prize! The head of Saul! The very same Saul who had called for the head of Goliath. And in the pictures that we sometimes see, of war movies, the victors moving across the scene where the battle has ensued, and they’re picking up bits and pieces, weapons—and there the picture is so graphic that scattered across the hillside are those who had lined up alongside Saul and his sons, and their uniforms are removed, and their weapons are taken away, and they’re stripped down in the ignominy of it all.
We don’t have time to go back through this, but there are a number of ways in which this picture unfolds. For example, when you think of Saul at the very beginning, you think of Saul disrobing, taking off his stuff and putting it on David. Doesn’t work. We saw him in chapter 28, when he takes off his royal emblems in order that he might disguise himself in going in before the witch. Before the prophets in chapter 19, when they all started their crazy stuff, you remember you have that picture at the end of 19 where he has stripped himself naked, and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with this character.
Well, now we see him, decapitated, disgraced, disfigured, and displayed. It’s payback time for the Philistines: “So they cut off his head and [they] stripped off his armor.” In Chronicles, where you have parallel passages to this, it actually says in 1 Chronicles 10:10, “And they put his armor in the temple of their gods and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon.” Think about that for just a moment. They’re still smarting from the Dagon incident back in chapter 5—you remember, where Dagon falls down and he smashes in pieces. And now they said, “Yeah, you might have been able to topple our Dagon, but we have toppled your king, and we have put his head in there to testify to the fact that we have won, that the God of Israel is vanquished.” You see, this is not about the defeat of Saul. This is about the enemies of Israel saying, “We know how to run life; we know how to win.” And that’s the picture: “A toppled idol is nothing compared to your toppled king.”
And you can see that in this humiliation and degradation, there is a total disregard for not only life but also for death. There is a right way to deal with death and dead bodies. This is not time for the discussion, but I’m telling you, these are the forerunners of the people who, in magazines that are easily found when you’re flying or sitting in the doctor’s office, who are suggesting that the wonderful way to think of dealing with Grandpa is to turn him into compost. The enemies of God have no concern for life in its origins and life in its endings. It is a distinctive of biblical Christianity. It is not mirrored in Hinduism or in Islam, anywhere at all. It is absolutely unique.
And this testimony remains in Scripture to their brutality. And their brutality, the actual physicality of it, is only matched by their message. They have a message, and they’re gonna get the message out as loud as they can: They “sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry” the gospel. Do you see that? “To carry the good news.” You see, the enemies of God have a gospel. They have their own good news. They had a message to proclaim. There’s no shame there. It’s the Philistine gospel. They’re carrying it to the house of their idols. They’re bearing it so that the people may celebrate it.
Now, as I said, I’m not a poet, and I surely can’t write songs, but as I was studying this week, I said, “This is the absolute opposite of ‘See what a morning, gloriously bright.’” And I just wrote down,
See what an evening, horribly dark,
With a triumph of death in Gilboa.
Naked the king hangs, sons nailed beside him,
As the message sounds out to the nation,
“Love is dead, death has won, hell has conquered.”
That’s what they’re saying. And loved ones, that is what the world outside of Christ is essentially saying. It is the conflict between light and darkness. John Woodhouse captures it wonderfully in just a sentence or two. He says, “Every mockery of God and his people, every expression of scorn toward the Lord Jesus and his followers, is a version of the Philistine gospel.”
Well, that puts it in context, doesn’t it? “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers [and] authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
So the summary in verse 1, and then the tragedy in 2–7, and the brutality in 8–10. And then the finality in the context of kindness: “But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard…” The inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead had reason to be thankful for Saul, because back in chapter 11, by Saul’s intervention, they had been rescued. And so now a number of them must have said to one another, “You know what? The best thing we could do in this circumstance is go and rescue him. We could repay his kindness.” And it is in this context that we realize that the brutality of these men in relationship to the body of Saul had extended to the bodies of his sons: they not only nailed Saul up against the wall in Beth-shan, but they nailed up the three boys beside him.
And so they come. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but they did it. They must have been valiant: “all the valiant men.” Well, wonderful, isn’t it? “And they came to Jabesh and burned them there.” That is so incongruous. Because this is distinctive. I can only assume that the dissolution of the body had set in so significantly, that the putrefaction of the body was such, that the only right thing for them to do in the interest of health and everything else would be to do something that wasn’t normal for them to do. But you will notice that there’s no compost- making here. They do not burn it down to nothing. No: “They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh,” and as a mark of respect, they observed shiva, and they “fasted [for] seven days.”
When the people had asked for a king back in chapter 8, they could never have imagined that things could possibly turn out like this. You remember that on that occasion, when Samuel was disappointed with their request, God says to Samuel, “Samuel, it’s not you that they’re referring to. It’s not you that they’re rejecting. It’s me that they’re rejecting.” Now, if you think about that, as I’m sure you do, you realize that their folly was in placing their hopes in someone other than the living God. And so they said, “No, we know that you’re the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but if we could just get the right man, if we could get the right person, then we’d be able to take care of this.”
Our time is virtually gone, but we dare not miss the folly of placing our hopes in human power, whether they’re pastors or prophets or priests or presidents or kings. Look at the scene. The burial site does not signal the failure of God’s purpose. Eli is gone. Samuel is gone. Saul now is gone. “Well,” the people are able to say, “we have David up next.” But wait! He’s gonna be gone too. Why? Because the whole of the Old Testament in its unfolding story, whether it is in the picture of the prophet as in Samuel, or the priest as in Eli, or the king as in Saul, or even in David, is longing for the fulfillment, for someone who will come.
I remember 1972, in Dallas, at Explo ’72 with Campus Crusade, just feeling so stirred as some musical band played up on that football field, and they would sing out into the evening. There were—I don’t know how many—a hundred thousand people there, and they used to sing out, “Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above him there’s no other, [because] Jesus is the way.” I remember thinking as a twenty-year-old, “You know, that is the message.” And here I am, what, forty-eight years later? I’m saying the same thing. Because it’s what the Bible says. In the face of political chaos, social disintegration, the inevitability of death, we need to take ourselves by the hand. We need to consider what the Scriptures have to say.
And I want to end as I ended last time, giving Peter the stage, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost. And as he speaks about the plan and purpose of God, he reaches the person of David. And in Acts 2:25, he’s talking about the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. It wasn’t possible for death to hold Jesus, because Jesus triumphed over death—“Behold the sinless savior dies,” and so on. And then he says, “For David says, concerning him…” This is what David says concerning Jesus. And then he quotes David in the Sixteenth Psalm. And then Peter picks it up, and he says, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ.”
Now, what does he mean by that? He means Psalm 16:11: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand [there is pleasure] forevermore.” “He will not abandon my soul to Hades. You will not let your holy one see corruption.” That’s what, says Peter, he is talking about. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that,” says Peter,
we[’re] all … witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself [declared], “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
What a great Advent hymn it is. We’re not going to sing it. It isn’t Advent, as it were, yet.
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
You know the phraseology “The King is dead, long live the King!” And if you know the source of that, then it is simply the transition that is recognized in the British monarchy—was, in Elizabeth’s line, of course, “The King is dead, long live the Queen!” But we can say that today: “The king is dead, Saul. Long live the King, Jesus.” Are you in his army? Is he your hope and your consolation?
Father, thank you that Jesus is our Prophet, Priest, and King. Thank you that when we are confronted by the tragedy of life, often the very brutality of death, the chaos of political structures, the disintegration of social structures, “when all around [our] soul gives way, he then is all [our] hope and stay.”
Lord, write these things on our hearts, we pray, those who believe and profess to believe. And draw to yourself, we pray, those who are without God and without hope in the world, for your glory, we pray. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 1 Samuel 9:1–2 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 22:6.
 1 Samuel 8:5 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Samuel 23:16.
 1 Samuel 23:17 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 24:1–22.
 See 1 Samuel 26:1–25.
 1 Samuel 24:6 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 24:6 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Samuel 17:38–39.
 Romans 15:4 (ESV).
 Luke 12:4–5 (ESV).
 Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).
 J. I. Packer, 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know (1981; repr., Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010), 195.
 Joe South, “Games People Play” (1968).
 See 1 Samuel 28:8.
 See 1 Samuel 19:24.
 See 1 Samuel 5:1–5.
 Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “See What a Morning (Resurrection Hymn)” (2003).
 John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 552.
 Ephesians 6:12 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 11:1–11.
 1 Samuel 8:7 (paraphrased).
 Andraé Crouch and Sandra Crouch, “Jesus Is the Answer” (1973).
 Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne” (1863). Paraphrased.
 Acts 2:29–31 (ESV).
 Psalm 16:10 (paraphrased). See also Acts 2:27.
 1 Samuel 31:32–36 (ESV).
 Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” (1745).
 Edward Mote, “The Solid Rock” (c. 1834).
 See Ephesians 2:12.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.