Well we’ve come to it. After beginning our Collision series working through the book of 1 Samuel this past January 31st, today, 30 chapters later, we come to the end. As expected, in this book we’ve found collision after collision: beginning with Eli and Hannah, moving onto Eli and Samuel, then to Saul and Samuel, and finally to Saul and David there has been no shortage of drama, wisdom, and gospel grace to be gleaned in this wonderful historical account.
As we come to the end of 1 Samuel this morning I want to begin by taking you back to 160 AD, to the city of Smyrna, and to the 86 year old disciple of the Apostle John and bishop of the city of Smyrna, Polycarp. Polycarp is famous for his heroic death, here’s how the events unfolded. The Christians in Smyrna had been put under severe persecution and many of them left the city because of it. Polycarp had originally chosen to stay within the city despite the threat of death until a few friends convinced him to come out to the country around the city. The authorities eventually found him and brought him by donkey into the city stadium to be killed for teaching that Jesus is Lord.
A man approached him and said, “Polycarp have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say “Down with the Atheists!” They called him an atheist because he denied the Lordship of Caesar. Polycarp grew stern and motioned to the wicked crowds of pagan people and said, “Down with the Atheists!” The man responded, “Reproach Christ and I will set you free.” Polycarp responded with this, “86 years I have served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” After this he was threatened with animals, with torture, and with other methods of cruelty. Polycarp ended these taunts when he said, “You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour and is then extinguished, you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.” The fire was prepared, he prayed loudly, and was set ablaze. Then it appeared as if the fire refused to burn him and circled around him instead. His skin wasn’t burning at all and a sweet smell began to fill the stadium. The man overseeing the execution ordered someone to stab him since the fire wasn’t working and the moment the blade pierced his skin, there was such a great flow of blood that came out of him the fire was put out. His death silenced the roar of the wicked crowd, and to this day Polycarp’s death is well remembered.
I bring this up today because it’s clear that Polycarp died a heroic death. As we enter our text, and as I read it, ask yourselves what person in chapter 31 resembles Polycarp and who does not? Follow along as I read our passage this morning, 1 Samuel 31:1-13…
Chapter 31 begins in v1-7 with the death of Saul, and concludes in v8-13 with the disposal of Saul.
a) The Death of Saul (v1-7)
Recall where we left Saul as chapter 28 ended. He had traveled precariously close to the vast Philistine army to seek out wisdom and direction from a witch in the city of Endor and all he received was a declaration of his impending death. He despaired so greatly he could barely eat and as he left Endor to rejoin his troops we can only wonder at the sorrow and angst present in his heart. Surely, part of his angst came from his painful awareness that he now must face the consequences for sparing the wicked Amalekites in chapter 15, for spilling the innocent blood of Israel’s priests in the city of Nob in chapter 22, for wrongfully pursuing David for many months and miles around the nation, and for making a life of rejecting the wisdom of God for his own.
The author wastes no time, as v1 begins we find ourselves in the midst of a battle already raging on. The vast Philistine host is prevailing and advancing against Israel. Saul’s troops are fleeing and falling all around him. And…if it’s not a tragic enough scene already, in v2 we learn that Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchi-Shua have all been killed in the battle. This is a sad scene indeed.
In v3-4 the author returns to Saul and says the battle ‘pressed hard’ or literally ‘weighed heavily’ on him. Not only because his sons had just died before his very eyes, but because his life is now in dire straits. He’s fighting for his life and probably putting up a good fight but he’s been found and badly wounded by the Philistine archers. He was very badly wounded by the archers and he desperately tries to save his dead body from Philistine abuse by asking his armor bearer to kill him. When his armor bearer refused Saul took out his sword and fell on it. Thus passes Saul the son of Kish, the first king of Israel. v7 tells us that when the army of Israel and much of the nation learned of Saul’s death and the death of his sons, paranoia grew to an immense proportion. The war immediately ended, the soldiers who were still alive fled for their lives, and the Israelites who lived in the nearby towns and cities escaped to safer parts of the country, leaving this region of Israel wide open for the Philistines.
So lets ask: in this chapter who died a heroic death like Polycarp? It surely wasn’t Saul! When v4 comes to us we’re not surprised to see Saul die as he lived – for himself. Rather than entrusting his death to God and seeking to die well, he asks his armor bearer to kill him. He refused, and to avoid being abused by the Philistines, like Samson was, he tries to take his life. This was not heroic, it was meant to be a quick escape. But even this did not kill him. His life lingered on. 2 Samuel 1 tells us that as Saul laid there in anguish, an Amalekite walked by, and Saul pled with him to kill him, so he did. Don’t miss the irony here. It’s ironic that it an Amalekite killed him, since Saul was previously unwilling to put a complete end to the Amalekites in chapter 15. No, it’s not Saul who died a heroic death. Saul’s death is rather the sad culmination of all of his wicked choices. He got what was coming to him, more so, what God through Samuel told him would come to him if he didn’t repent. If Saul is not our tragic hero, is there another option? Of course there is.
If we can say chapter 31 is a tragedy with a tragic hero than our tragic hero is Jonathan. From the wide portions of Scripture given to detail the friendship between David and Jonathan, we’re grieved to read that Jonathan shared the same fate as his brothers. This is the Jonathan who willingly surrendered his right to the throne of Israel to David. This is the Jonathan who loved and covenanted with David. This is the Jonathan who likely sacrificed his life to extend his father’s. Yet we shouldn’t feel sorry for him, no, he remained faithful in the calling God had given him just as Polycarp would do years later. Jonathan died well. He faithfully recognized what God was doing in raising up David and he looked to the future reward by giving up his right to rule an earthly kingdom to gain a role in the heavenly kingdom. Do not grieve for Jonathan, see in him a superb example of faithfulness and courage in a hard place.
Church, be instructed in the present from the end of these two men. Learn what life is like without God from Saul: you may be rich, you may even be a king in this world and have an easy life, but without God you’ll be hopeless, alone, and empty. Learn also what life is like with God from Jonathan: you may be a servant to another all your life and never become a king in this world and have a hard life, but with God you’ll be hopeful, abundant, and delighted. Every single one of you will either follow Saul or Jonathan in life and death. The question we face at v7 is simple and necessary: will we live and die well like Jonathan, or will we live and die poorly like Saul?
b) The Disposal of Saul (v8-13)
v8-10 tell us what the Philistines did after winning the battle. They went out the day after to empty the pockets of the dead and strip the slain and to their great delight they found Saul and his sons dead on Mt. Gilboa. Right away they cut off his head…perhaps to repay Israel and David for earlier cutting off the head of their champion Goliath…or perhaps to insult Saul himself who once stood a head taller than all other men, but now was just like all the others. They were so overjoyed at the victory it says in v9 that they had their own Christmas moment where they went around the whole country giving good news of glad tidings and great joy to all Philistine peoples – Saul is dead! Saul is dead! They hung Saul’s body and the bodies of his three sons publicly along the city wall of Beth-shan and put their armor in the temples of their pagan gods for all to come see and join in on the celebration. Ironic again that Saul, who was commissioned as king to save Israel from the Philistines in 9:16, fell on his sword to prevent his body from being abused by the Philistines, and yet, no king in Israel was ever abused as badly as Saul was by the Philistines.
Even though Saul was a wicked king who rejected God’s ways and preferred his own wisdom, v11-13 says the valiant men of Jabesh-Gilead rose up in the night, risked their lives, and retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons to bring them home and honor them. These last verses of the chapter make a fitting end to the story of Saul’s reign. His first act as king had been to rescue the city of Jabesh-Gilead in chapter 11 when Nahash and the Ammonites suddenly attacked it. Now the last sentences of his reign describe the reverse, the valiant men of Jabesh-Gilead rescue his body and the bodies of his sons and gave them a funeral fit for a king. Burning was not a custom in Israel at the time, most think they burned the bodies to prevent the spread of disease from the decaying bodies. David would eventually remove their bones from underneath the tamarisk tree and bury them in their family tomb in 2 Samuel 21.
This book began with the birth of Samuel, but now in a sad twist it ends with the burial of Saul. In chapter 29 we saw God deliver David from death, here in chapter 31 we see God deliver Saul to death. In chapter 30 we saw David conquering his enemies the Amalekites, here in chapter 31, perhaps even on the very same day, we see the Saul being conquered by his enemies the Philistines.
Here at the end of 1 Samuel I’d like to restate what we said at the beginning of this series this past January: “1 Samuel is about kings, but more importantly it’s about the great King, God Himself. In these stories we catch glimpses of who God is, what He does, what life is like with Him and without Him, and what life can become by the power His grace and the power of His Spirit. These stories are part of our family history as believers, they’re meant to instruct us, encourage us, and give us hope. These stories are gospel-filled stories, honest about sin and society, saturated with the hope of heaven.” (Gospel Transformation Study Bible, page 341)
How should we end this series today?
I want you to remember 1 Samuel 16:7. 1 Samuel 16:7 is the summary statement of the whole book of 1 Samuel. God had brought Samuel to Jesse to anoint one of his sons and after seeing his oldest son Eliab God told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” All throughout the book we see this, what looks as tall and strong and faithful in the eyes of man isn’t so tall and strong and faithful in the eyes of God. Hannah, a then barren woman, was more righteous than Eli the priest. David, a then young shepherd boy, was more righteous than Saul the king. “God’s ways are not our ways.” And for our purposes here at the beginning of our celebration of Advent do we not see the same things? To the eyes of man the child of a young newly married couple born next to animals in Bethlehem was nothing worth mentioning. Yet, He was the long awaited One who would teach us the truth, who would fulfill all righteousness for His people in His perfect law-abiding life, who would atone for and pay the penalty as the substitute for His people’s law-breaking lives, and who would rise again from death to usher in a whole new kind of life.
To the world, nothing special happened that night in Bethlehem. But for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this Child is both David’s Son and David’s LORD, the Prince of peace and the wonderful Counselor, the mighty God and everlasting Father.
All of the collisions between the people in 1 Samuel were only a foreshadow of the greater collision to come, when the author of the play Himself, would walk on stage and change everything! “When His divinity meets our depravity there is a beautiful collision.” (David Crowder)