The deceased Samuel, speaking for God, reveals to Saul the doom that awaits him and the armies of Israel on the marrow. The Lord will deliver all Israel into the hands of the Philistines. Saul and his sons will die on the battle field.
Hearing, Saul is moved to the core, and falls straightway all along the ground, or, in the language of the original text, “Saul made haste and fell with the fullness of his stature.” The shock of the seer’s dreadful message is too great. With his body weakened from lack of nourishment—the text states that he has eaten no bread all the day nor all the night—Saul suffers a physical collapse. For the Lord speaks
Samuel’s words in his heart. His distress is great. Words cannot utter it.
The woman comes to him. She sees that he is sore troubled. His distress touches her heart. Though a sorceress, she is not devoid of human sympathy. But being a godless person, her tenderest mercies are cruel. Saul suffers the agonies of the doomed in hell. The only remedy for such distress is heartfelt repentance. She should be admonishing him to humble himself under God’s mighty hand. Actually, all she does is to insist that he rise from the earth and eat. “Behold,” says she to him, “thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in thine hand and have hearkened unto thy words, which thou spakest unto me. Now, therefore, I pray thee, hearken thou also unto the voice of thine handmaid, and let me set a morsal of bread before thee; and eat, that thou mayest have strength, when thou goest on thy way.” The point that she argues is that he does her a favor, if he eat, and that she, by hearkening unto his voice, put him under a kind of obligation. But Saul refuses. “I will not eat,” he tells her. It is not a wonder, considering his anguish of spirit. He is aware of the Lord’s waiting to destroy him yonder in mount Gilboa. Rather than face that judgment, he chooses to carry through his fast and die where he lies. If the woman would only lay off. But she is insistent. Her pertinacity is of the Lord. For Saul must eat, that he may have strength, when he goes on his way to his everlasting doom. Accordingly, his two companions come to the woman’s aid. By their joint effort they break down his resistance. He rises from the earth and sits on his bed, as having yielded to their entreaties to take food.
The woman has a fat calf in her house, which she hastens to kill. She takes flour, kneeds it, and makes unleavened bread thereof. She sets before Saul and his servants. And Saul, too, eats. His spirit comes again to him. Having eaten, he rises, he and his servants. On the strength of that bread he goes away this same night and rejoins his army there in mount Gilboa, a man under the ban of God and thus doomed to extinction.
As was explained, the Philistines are pitched in Shunem, on the western declivity of the little Herman. The Hebrews are encamped in Gilboa, that is, on the mountain range in the territory of Issacher, which traverses the south-eastern part of the plain of Jezreel. The two armies are thus encamped on two groups of mountains, separated by a distance of only four miles and enclosing the broad plain of Jezreel toward the east.
Morning has come. It is high time that Saul go out before his army against the Philistines, who already swarm the plain. But the doomed and trembling king takes thought of but one thing, namely, how he may escape the sword of the Philistines and thus save himself out of the hand of God. Accordingly, he refuses to bestir himself, so that the Philistines are compelled to carry the war to him in the mount. (This is strictly according to the text, which reveals that the scene of battle was not the plain but the mount. At verse 1 of chapter 31 the statement accurs that the men of Israel, fleeing before the Philistines, fell down slain in Gilboa). The Philistines continue to advance. They ascend the mountain, and the conflict is on. And Saul? He stands afar off, surrounded by his bodyguard. He takes no part in the conflict. Mindful of the words of Samuel, he goes not to the battle. This doubtless, is the implication of the text at verse 2, “And the battle went hard to Saul,” implying that Saul went not to the battle, appeared not on the scene of conflict to give leadership to his forces, it being that he was bent on escaping the sword of the adversary. We are not allowed to read “against” instead of “to”. For the Hebrew preposition here employed is “el”, (written with the aleph); it is not “al” (written with the ay in). The phrase describes the movement of the battle toward Saul.
It all goes to show that even in this dreadful hour Saul hardens his heart, first, by his unwillingness to repent, and, second by his denying that he was actually made to hear the word of God concerning his end there in Endor. The voice that he heard must have originated in his own disordered nervous system. Hence he will not die but live, he tells himself, if only he takes the necessary precautions. But his heart tells him that he will die; and so he will, for the Lord has said. Accordingly, the battle goes hard to Saul. The hard-fighting and conquering Philistines are being directed by the unseen hand of God to the place of Saul’s retreat. Doubtless, his whole army, all the Hebrews, have already taken recourse to flight; and Saul flees with them with the adversary in hot pursuit. “And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons”, (ver. 2). But the Philistines, it seems, are not aware that they pursue the king. For the text at verse 8 states that, on the marrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mt. Gilboa.
As by chance and perhaps without recognizing him, “the shooters and the men of the bow find him—Saul—and he is sore afraid of the archers.” (this is the correct rendering of the text at this place, and not, “And the archers hit him; and he was sore wounded of the archers. That Saul was sore wounded is disproved by the fact of his being able to lean on a sword in the act of taking his own life). Saul perceives that all his efforts to nullify the prophecy of Samuel by saving his life come to nought. He will die, as God has said. With most of his body-guard fallen down slain, it is clear that his hour has struck. But even now he is occupied solely with his own honour. He refuses to die by the hand of those uncircumcised Philistines. He is determined to spare himself that disgrace. So he commands his armour-bearer, “Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised ocme and thrust me through and mock me.” But his armour-bearer will not; for he is sore afraid. It is the Lord’s anointed whom he would be slaying. Saul now takes a sword and falls upon it as imagining, perhaps, that in dying by his own hand he still prevents God from having His way with him by slaying him with the sword of the Philistines. But Samuel’s prophecy did not exclude suicide. These were his words, “And to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me,” namely in Sheol, the realm of the dead. All that the seer had spoken is come to pass. Saul and his three sons are dead. The host of Israel is in the hands of the Philistines.
The rout of the armies of Israel is complete. The tidings of the disaster is spread far and wide by the fleeing remnant. The men of Israel that dwell beyond the plain and even those that dwell beyond the Jordan near its bank forsake their cities and flee to safer regions. So great is the panic. The evacuated cities are taken over by the Philistines, who dwell in them.
On the morrow the Philistines come to strip the slain. They find Saul and his three sons fallen in Mt. Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head and strip off his armour, which they send into their land round about to publish the good news to their idols, and among their people. They put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth. His body they fasten to the wall of Bethsham, four miles west of the Jordan. According to the Chronicler, they fastened his head on the temple of Dagon. According to verse, 12 they deal in the same way with the corpses of Saul’s sons.
When the men of Jabesh-Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, they thought of what Saul once had done for them. Under the cover of the night they go to Bethsham, and from its walls take the body of Saul and the body of his three sons and burn them there. The bones they bury under a tree.
The Lord brought Saul to a terrible end on account of his rebellions and impenitence. His destruction was sudden. He was cut off from God’s country—the land of the spiritually living—in the midst of his days, in the prime of life. His head was made a public gazing- stock there in the temple of Dagon. His decapitated body was suspended between heaven and earth by its being fastened to the walls of Bethshan, and finally it was burned. These ignominies were signs of the Lord’s hot displeasure, of the anger of His hatred of Saul. So they were regarded in that day and rightly so. And they were given, were these signs, that all Israel might know that Saul was wicked, and that David was righteous.
“And it came to pass after the death of Saul” (). This clause connects the first book of Samuel with the second. It refers directly to I Sam. 31, thus continuing the narrative after the account there given of the death of Saul. The narrator continues, “And David was returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and David abode two days in Ziklag.” On the third day a man comes out of the camp from Saul and brings David the news of Saul’s death. The coming of the messenger at this time indicates that the battle of Gilboa took place on the previous day of David’s return to Ziklag. The messenger comes with rent clothes and earth upon his head, the signs of grief. He falls down and does obeisance in recognition of David as future king. David asks him from whence he is engaged in coming. He returns answer, “Out of the camp of Israel am I escaped.” David’s heart trembles because of those words of the man. He fears that the worst has happened to Saul and Jonathan his son and the people of the Lord and the house of Israel. “What is the matter? I pray thee, tell me.” The man does as requested. He completes his report in these words, “The people are fled from the battle; moreover many of the people are fallen and dead; and moreover Saul and Jonathan are dead.” That last statement about Saul and Jonathan causes David to wonder at the man. He doesn’t like the tone of voice in which the man uttered those words. He looks at the man again and this time his gaze is searching as is the question that he puts to him, “How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son is dead?” The young man welcomes the question. Little does he anticipate David’s reactions to his fabricated answer. This is his story. He happened by chance upon Mount Gilboa, and saw Saul leaning upon his spear. This cannot well be understood of Saul’s attempt to kill himself (according to ). Perhaps we must suppose that Saul, badly wounded, was leaning on his spear (which was fixed in the ground) in order to hold himself up in a sitting position. While he was sitting there, “Lo, the chariot-warriors and the horsemen followed hard after him,” came so near that soon they must have reached him. But according to I Sam. 31:4 the pursuers were the men of the bow, thus footmen. Looking behind him, Saul saw this young man who in reply to Saul’s question, “who art thou,” said that he was the son of an Amalekite stranger. Saul implores the man to slay him, giving as his reason that anguish was come upon him, because his life was still whole in him. Being certain that Saul could not live after his fall, the man, complying, dealt Saul the stroke that ended his life. Taking the diadem that was upon Saul’s head, arid the bracelet that was upon his arm, he brought them to David.
(Some suppose that, according to this narrative, Saul was not wounded at all, but utterly exhausted and that he was leaning on his spear to hold himself up in a standing position. They suppose, further, that, in consequence of his excitement and exertions, he was seized by a cramp so that, finding himself in a bodily condition in which he could not defend himself, besought the Amalekite to slay him. And the Amalekite consented, seeing that Saul could not live after his fall, that is, as this class of interpreters have it, after the defeat of his army and with the chariot-warriors so near. But this interpretation is too unlikely).
There is conflict between the account of the Amalekite and wounded himself severely by falling on his own sword, and received the death-stroke from the Amalekite. For the conflict is not between two personal accounts of the sacred writer, but between the personal account of the latter a. According to the latter, Saul killed himself by his own sword, that is, died as the result of a mortal and self-inflicted wound. According to the former, the Amalekite dealt him the stroke that ended his life. But there is no point to the attempt at harmonizing the two accounts for example by saying that Saul only nd the personal report of the Amalekite to David concerning the same event.
The conflict implies of course not that the sacred writer was in error—writing as he did under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, he could not err—but that the Amalekite lied. Yet, his lying communication to David is still the infallible word of God, but of course only in the sense that what he said to David forms a part of the book of Samuel and that the sacred writer’s narration of what he said is infallibly true; thus only in the sense that he actually said to David what he is reported to have said to him by the sacred writer. And therefore we need not attempt to harmonize the twq accounts in question, as if the Amalekite’s lying involves the word of God in a conflict. Such is not the case, certainly; and therefore the matter that has significance here is not whether or no the report of the Amalekite can be harmonized with the narrative of the sacred writer (it can, of course, by baseless conjecture), but what the man reported to David, namely that, finding Saul mortally wounded, he, at Saul’s request, delivered the stroke that ended the king’s life.
Let us take a closer view at this Amalekitp. The man is a study in masked wickedness. To David’s question, “Whence art thou,” he replies, “I am the son of an Amalekite stranger, that is, of an Amalekite who had settled in Israel. The law of Moses often bears on the stranger. If he let himself and all the males of his house be circumcised, he was allowed to keep the passover to the Lord; and would be as one born in the land, ; . These circumcised strangers, incorporated through their circumcision into the commonwealth of Israel, the people of Israel were commanded to love; they had to refrain from vexing them. “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in the land,” so read the law, “ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” ().
Whether the youn man of our narrative belonged to this, class of strangers the text does not reveal. But he must have already resided in Israel for a long time, For his knowledge of David seems to be considerable. He is confident that David is to rule in Saul’s stead. For he brings to David the symbols of royal dignity—the crown and the bracelet—that he had taken from Saul’s corpse. But David had made no attempt to hurl Saul from his throne; abiding the Lord’s time, he patiently bore Saul’s persecutions. For David is not of the violent men of the earth; he does not live by his sword. He is of the meek of the earth. He loves God and his people. He loves Saul, too, as his enemy. Of this, too, the young man seems to be more or less aware. And therefore he thinks it prudent to pretend that he is heart-broken by the events that he reports to David. So he rushes into David’s presence with his clothes rent and earth upon his head.
Yet the man does not really know and understand David. For he imagines that he ingratiates himself with David by being able to report to him that Saul is actually dead. What is worse, it seems not to occur to the man that David will decry his having dealt Saul the stroke that ended his life. The man himself sees no wrong in what he did. Saul was in his death-agony. Besides, he slew Saul in accordance with his own request, because he saw that he could not survive his wounds. Saul would have died anyway. Doubtless, the whole story is a lie. The reason that the man invented it is that he wanted to be able to tell David that Saul was actually dead. He knew that the king was dead, he meant to say, because he had slain him with his own hand. Besides, he brought from Saul’s corpse the royal crown to confirm his words.
Having heard the young man out, David takes hold of his clothes, and rends them; and likewise all the men that were with him. And they mourn and weep, and fasted until even. David’s heart is heavy with grief for Saul, and Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel; “because they were fallen by the sword.”
The young man may have anticipated this expression of grief on the part of David and his men. The man had rent his own garments. But he had not anticipated the question that David now puts to him, “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” David can hold him fully responsible because of his long residence in Israel.
Perhaps the man denies his deed and his denial is rightly disregarded. Telling the man that his blood is upon his own head, in that his mouth testified against him, David orders him slain.