Now the Philistines fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa. . .
Then said Saul, unto his armor bearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armor bearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.
And when his armour bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor bearer, and all his men, that same day together.
Dark depression and gloom hung over Saul like a cloud as he returned from the sorceress of Endor to his army encamped on the slopes of Gilboa. The night was dark; but that he hardly noticed. The judgment of God hung over him, inescapably so, and all hope of light was driven out of his soul. His blood ran cold in his veins, and even desire had fled from his heart. Nothing any more really mattered, and even the thought of oblivion in the grave seemed to reach out to him with attraction. To be sure, it had been a long time since Saul had known any real joy or consolation. His life had been dark and getting darker ever since his battle with the Amalekites; but through it all there had always remained that ray of hope, that feeling of stubborn confidence that somehow in some way he would be able to come out as victor against that curse of Samuel, against the strength of David, and even over against the power of God. In that hour, though, when he had given his heart over to the black practices of Endor’s enchantress, even this died. All that remained now was that black door to the grave and to hell, and he was powerless any longer to fight it.
When at last the sun rose once again over the slopes of Gilboa, Saul’s eyes looked down the plain of Esdraelon; but darkness hung still over his mind and heart. Below him lay the world’s most famous battleground. In the days before recorded time, Egypt had fought here with the nations. Already in Israel’s short history, the judges had filled this valley with the shout of miraculous victories, while Saul’s soon to appear successors would do the same. Here all of the world’s great, each in his own hour, would make their own stands in glory or in dishonor, whatever the case might be, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and even Napoleon in his day. Here in modern times Israel would make its effort to restore its former glory without the power of God, and here even now history is yet to end in the great battle of Armageddon. But the mind of Saul was oblivious to all of this. Even the Philistines who now before his very eyes were swarming through the valley, filling it with the activities of preparation for battle, seemed almost unreal—at least, they appeared to his mind as a force that was more than human, a force against which it was hopeless even to try to fight. Upon his height of observation he just stood there, cold, unmoving and paralyzed, without a gesture, without an order, until at last the paralysis spread like a contagious disease out in large swooping circles about him, covering the whole of his army. Their king did not move, he would not lead, he could not fight, the battle to him was lost before it was ever begun; all of Israel knew it, and no one took as much as a step toward the gathering power of the enemy.
Meanwhile, unchallenged in the valley below, the Philistines were going about their preparations for battle, hastily at first, and then more slowly and thoroughly. Carefully they chose their desired lines of battle, they set up their defenses and strengthened them again and again, all of the while watching and waiting for the army of Israel to come down off Gilboa and make their challenge. At last there was nothing more to do, so they just waited until at last it became evident, Israel wasn’t coming. Saul was not going to make an attack. It was almost impossible to believe and frustrating to the extreme. Wisdom would have dictated at that moment that they go on to leave Saul at Gilboa while they spread out to ravage the land; but somehow the kings of the Philistines came to sense the true nature of the situation. Saul’s army would not fight, it could not, it was helpless against them; and the impossible order was given. The Philistines commanded their army straight up the slopes of Gilboa against the Israelites on its heights. It put them at a tremendous tactical disadvantage, fighting up hill against a well entrenched enemy; but now it didn’t matter. Somehow they sensed the real situation. With confident fury they made their attack.
Before long it became completely evident just as they had expected. There was token resistance, feeble efforts by valiant men of Israel to make resistance; but nothing that really mattered, In spite of the uphill nature of their battle, the Philistines in an amazingly short time had turned the battle decisively in their own favor. And strangely it was that final, decisive turning of the battle against him, that finally aroused Saul out of his stupor. Now he began to move, and, indeed, not to run with his fleeing soldiers, not to hide, but to plunge himself into the midst of the thickest battle. Wildly he fought, recklessly, without any of his usual regard for his own safety. From battle to battle he ran and from skirmish to skirmish, seeking for some with which to fight, or even more, looking for, waiting for that sharp cut of a sword’s edge, that hot plunge of a spear, or that piercing sting of an arrow that would bring the end to all of this misery in which he had been living. It would come, he knew it had to, and almost eagerly he rushed from place to place looking for its coming.
And then it came, carried upon an arrow falling, as it were, out of heaven itself and burying itself deep into his body. The pain was almost sweet and with relief he felt it swell—only, it didn’t swell nearly enough, it didn’t become overwhelming, there was not gushing of the blood carrying his strength away and leaving him to sink into the darkness of sweet oblivion. It hurt, but not nearly enough. No, and with anguish Saul realized it, death was not yet; and he would have to plunge on into the battle again to find that final ending which now he wanted, it seemed, as badly as he had ever wanted anything. And then it struck him, a new thought, one with as much and greater terror than he had ever known before—it was the thought that maybe he was not going to die. It seemed impossible at first, too unreal for his mind to be able to adjust to it; but it grew fast and began to overwhelm him with a horror beyond comparison. It was evident that the battle was really finished. His men were hopelessly scattered, pursued by the bloodthirsty Philistines; and for himself he was finding it ever harder to meet any Philistine who would fight. He tried, desperate in his determination, but always there was his faithful armor bearer or some other who would put the Philistine to flight in pursuit of some easier game. Could it be that here on this battlefield he was not to die? that he was to be taken by the victorious enemy, still alive? If that would happen, he knew only too well what to expect—torture, slow painful mutilation of his body, or even more terrible than that, a public display with mockery and ridicule before the whole of the Philistine nation. It was not unlikely, this was a favorite to the Philistines; Saul remembered Samson only too well. To him there was nothing more terrible, there never had been. One thing that he had never been able to endure in life was the least suggestion that someone was mocking him and holding him in disrespect. The very thought of it could tear his soul apart and drive him to distraction. And now, here it was, staring him in the face as the most likely outcome of this battle.
It was more than Saul could endure. For a moment he contemplated it in cold terror; and then, turning to his armor bearer with all of the authority he could yet muster, he demanded of him that he take a sword and drive it deep into his heart. But it was too much, more than the poor man was able to do. He was faithful as an armor bearer, as faithful as a man could ever be. Through all of the utterly unpredictable actions of the king, he had stood close by his side and protected his king to the utmost of his power. He was ready at any moment to give his all for his king. But this was too much. To turn a sword against his own lord and so have to appear in the judgment with the blood of Jehovah’s anointed on his hands, this was more than he could do. A man who had never trembled for a moment before the strongest enemy, the armor bearer now drew back in terrible fear from the presence of his king. He could not harm the Lord’s anointed even when the king himself demanded it.
But Saul was not to be dissuaded. The fear of public ridicule was too much for him to endure. With wild determination, Saul was left no choice. Drawing his own sword, he held it against his own chest, and before anyone could as much as lift a hand to stop him dashed it against the ground. The sword was sharp and the blow was heavy. There in a moment Saul died the victim of his own hand. Only the poor armor bearer witnessed it; but for him it was too much. It made no difference how it had happened. He had failed to keep his king. To himself he did what he had refused to do to the Lord’s anointed. Taking his own sword, he plunged it into his own heart, following to the end the way of his king.
There was a quiet that settled over the field of battle and it lasted some time. The victory of the Philistines had been very complete. They drove the children of Israel off from Mt. Gilboa, out of the plains of Esdraelon, and even over the river Jordan. It was a long time before they were able to return to the scene of original battle to collect their loot. But parasites are not hard to find and soon there was a wandering Amalekite picking his way through the field of strife taking the choicest of what he could find, until, that was, he came to the body of Saul. His quick eyes took in at a glance all that had happened, and a clever plan formed in his mind. Leaving all he had previously gathered, he was satisfied to take Saul’s crown and rush off without more looting toward the south.
But that was not all. In time the Philistines too came back, and they found the body of Saul with as much joy as had the Amalekite. They loved to gloat over their enemies, as Saul had known full well; and the mere fact that he was now dead was not going to stop them. Taking the king’s body, as well as those of his three sons found not far away, they lifted them with triumph and carried them off to their own land. But just four bodies were not enough, and so they divided them. Here the bodies, here the heads, and here the various pieces of armor were carried with glee throughout their land through cities and temples and towns. There was a joy to defeating the Israelites such as came from no other nation. In their hearts the Philistines knew that behind Israel there was Israel’s God, and He was very great. It was like strong wine to the head that they were able to demonstrate that they had overcome Israel in defeat. The head of Saul they gave to the temple of Dagon, his armor went to Ashtaroth, and his body with those of his children was hung from the walls of Bethshan. It was the Philistines way of putting Israel and Israel’s God to shame.
It must surely have been with sad gratitude forever after that David recalled how God had kept him from taking part in that dreadful event.