When the Israelites along the valley and those on the other side of the Jordan saw that the army of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their cities and ran away. So the Philistines came and occupied them.
1 Samuel 31:7-10. (GILBOA.)1 Samuel 12:18, 25) had now burst upon the people of Israel. Since the capture of the ark they had not experienced so great a calamity, and in it the fatal results of their demand for a king were made manifest. Although the demand was evil, it contained an element of good, and was complied with by God in judgment mingled with mercy. "As no people can show a visible theocracy, so no monarchy can be accused, simply as such, of usurping the Divine prerogative. But still the transaction does involve a moral lesson, which lies at the foundation of all sound policy, condemning the abandonment of principle on the plea of expediency, and pointing by the example of Israel the doom of every nation that seeks safety and power in a course known to be wrong" (P. Smith, 'Ancient History'). They had their own way, yet the purpose of God was not defeated, but accomplished less directly, and in such a manner as to convince them of the folly of their devices, and exhibit his overruling wisdom and power. Whilst they pursued their course under a king "according to the will of man," their Divine King was preparing "a man after his own heart to be captain over his people" (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 12:22). When the end came David stood ready to occupy the throne, and, after a brief period of conflict and confusion, the whole nation, taught by experience, gladly received him as its ruler. This is the theocratic "argument" of the greater portion of the Book. In the terrible defeat of Israel we see -
I. THEIR IDOL BROKEN IN PIECES. "So Saul died," etc. "The men of Israel fled, and Saul and his sons were dead," etc. (vers. 6, 7). Men are apt to imagine that something else beyond what God has ordained is necessary to their welfare, to be impatient of his time, to attach an undue value to the expedients which in their imperfect knowledge and sinful desires they devise, to set their hearts upon earthly and visible objects, and depend upon them rather than upon "him who is invisible." This tendency finds expression in many ways, and embodies itself in many forms. And although God may permit such idols to continue for a time, he always overthrows them. When Israel made an idol of the ark it was given into the hands of the Philistines, and when they made an idol of "a king" (1 Samuel 8:5) he was slain. Their hope in him was bitterly disappointed, and inasmuch as he yeas (according to Divine prescience, though not by absolute necessity nor without personal guilt) a representation and reflection of their sin (worldliness, formalism, self-will), they were severely punished in him and by his instrumentality. How little did they gain, how much did they lose, by having their own way! "I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath" (Hosea 13:11). "Cease ye from man," etc.
II. THEIR CITIES FORSAKEN. "And when the men of Israel that were by the side of the plain" (west of the central branch of the valley of Jezreel, "opposite to the place of conflict, which the writer assumed as his standpoint" - Keil), "and by the side of the Jordan" (east of the plain, between Gilboa and the Jordan), "saw that the men of Israel" (who were engaged in the battle) "fled," etc. "they forsook the cities; and the Philistines came" (from that time onward) "and dwelt in them" (so that the whole of the northern part of the land fell into their hands). Instead of overcoming their enemies, they were overcome by them, driven from their homes, reduced to the most abject condition, and without any prospect of regaining by their own strength their lost possessions. "Your country is desolate," etc. (Isaiah 1:7). The peaceful government of Samuel gave them prosperity (1 Samuel 7:13, 14); but the warlike rule of Saul, which they preferred, ended in their overthrow. "Sore distressed," like him (1 Samuel 28:15), whither should they turn for help? Men are deprived of all hope in themselves that they may "set their hope in God."
III. THEIR ENEMIES TRIUMPHANT. "And it came to pass on the morrow" (after the battle, which ended at nightfall) "when the Philistines came," etc. "And they cut off his head (as in the case of Goliath of Gath, and afterwards deposited it in the temple of Dagon, in Ashdod, 1 Chronicles 10:10; 1 Samuel 5:1), and sent (messengers bearing his head and armour) into the land of the Philistines round about, to proclaim the good tidings in their idol temples (to their idols) and among the people (2 Samuel 1:20). And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth (in Askelon), and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan" (Judges 1:27). It has been remarked of the Philistines that "so implacable was their enmity to the Israelites, that one would be almost tempted to think that they bad been created on purpose to be a thorn in their sides" (Russell, 'Connection,' History of the Philistines). Their victory was the victory of their gods; the defeat of Israel the dishonour of Jehovah. Rather than sanction sin in his people, God not only suffers them to be overthrown by their enemies, but even his own name to be for a while despised and "blasphemed among the heathen." But the triumph of the wicked is short (2 Samuel 5:17-25).
IV. THEIR TRUE STRENGTH UNDESTROYED. It consisted in the presence and power of their Divine and invisible King; his benevolent and unchangeable purpose concerning them (1 Samuel 12:22); his faithful, praying, obedient subjects in their midst, who had been long looking to David as his chosen "servant," and were now rallying round him daily until his following became "a great host like the host of God" (1 Chronicles 12:22). There was an "Israel after the flesh" (constituting the State), and there was an Israel "after the spirit" (constituting the Church); and in the latter lay "the power of an endless life." Judgment might sweep over the nation like a destroying hailstorm, and leave it like a tree bereft of all its leaves, and even "cut it down" to the ground. But its true life would be spared, would be tried and purified by affliction, and become a source of renewed power and greater glory. "As a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof "(Isaiah 6:13; Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 65:8). Observations: -
1. That which is wrongly desired as an instrument of good becomes when obtained an instrument of evil.
2. Men may have their own Way apparently in opposition to the way of God, but his purpose does not change, and he knows how to carry it into effect.
3. The people who sanction the sins of their rulers justly share their punishment.
4. When the people of God expect to prevail against their enemies by adopting their sinful policy (1 Samuel 8:20), they are certain to be ultimately defeated.
5. The suffering and humiliation that follow sin are the most effectual means of its correction.
6. The hope of a nation in the day of trouble lies in its praying, believing, godly men.
7. God overrules all things, including the sins and sorrows of his people, for the establishment of his kingdom upon earth (1 Samuel 2:10). - D.
I. THE CHARACTER OF SAUL.
1. We begin with this: "Sin, when it is finished, bringing forth death." The career of the first monarch Israel ever had is now actually completed: his life is a failure; the wrong beginning has reached the fetal end. The parallel has more than once been drawn between the rejected Saul and the Roman Brutus at Philippi. They seem to have had a warning in very similar terms the night before they died. And the terrible destruction of their respective forces, the entire rout and ruin of their cause, worked the same maddening result. Each fell on his own sword, and so sealed his guilt with suicide. One thinks of the story which naturalists tell concerning the scorpion, which, girded by the circle of fire, coils up on itself into narrower and narrower folds, till, when it can endure the heat no longer, it turns its deadly venom against itself and buries the sting of destruction in its own brain. Saul knew he must die before nightfall that day; it was not necessary he should let himself be tortured.
So Saul died and his three sons.
1. Saul was what the Bible calls a "reprobate." By that we do not mean that he was a man hurried forward to his doom by a blind fate, or lashed to such a doom against his will by the scourge of relentless furies. There is no such case in all the Bible. Yes, Saul was a sinner, and a persistent sinner — a sinner who sinned against light and knowledge, against providence and grace, against mercy and judgment. "God gave him over to strong delusions, to believe a lie." God will not force men to obey him — will not compel them to repent when they have done wrong.
2. God's retributions are slow but sure. It had been a long time since Saul committed that first grievous offence against God. There were years of apparent peace and prosperity, when God seemed to have forgotten his old curse, and when Saul might have thought that God had changed his mind and purpose.
3. To forsake God is to be lost. That was the fatal turning point in Saul's history, both as a man and as the first king of Israel. There was everything to make him loyal to God. It was not the want of knowledge or the want of counsel that led him to stumble. It was a want of reverence for God as "King of kings." It was a want of will to do God's will, and a desire to follow the bent of his own heart in spite of all that God told him was right and wrong. So he forsook God. And what could God do, as a lover of truth and a lover of Israel, but forsake him.
(T. W. Hooper, D. D.)
2. So there is a second text of God's Word illustrated here in the incident: "None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself." The lines and links of connection with bind us to our fellow men are often very subtle, and sometimes unexpected; but they are certainly always very strong. We do not know that Saul cared much about others' interests, but his guilt was visited on many innocent, souls. By a tradition of the Rabbins we are told that the armour bearer mentioned here was named Doeg, and the tale adds that both of these men were slain by the same weapon, that was indeed the one with which the Lord's servants had been massacred at Nob.
3. Notice, therefore, closely in this connection that another of the Bible texts phrases for us a new lesson: "One sinner destroyeth much good." There was more in this tremendous catastrophe at Gilboa than an individual wreck. Great public interests were shaken almost as if the nation had been rocked by the force of an earthquake. Saul reaped the wind before he died, and when he died too; but it was his people that, with sickles of humiliation and loss and shame unutterable, reaped the whirlwind in his stead.
4. Happily there is another side even to this. We choose again from the utterances of inspiration, and we read, "The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment." It has been noticeable in human history that the Almighty deals somewhat surprisingly with remnants; even in great devastations there is often left a seed that tries to serve him and retrieve the disasters. It does our hearts good just now to learn that Jabesh-Gilead was aroused: somebody after all was alive in the land. A good turn often comes back again. Years before this Saul had saved the inhabitants of that town from losing their eyes at the hands of some brutal enemies; now they sent a faithful band to take reverently down from the spikes the bodies of the royal victims and give them decent burial at last. It is wiser always to side with the Lord of hosts, no matter how discouraging the present prospect may be.
5. Once more, we find an illustration also here of the text that has grown so familiar in our times: "In the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be."(1) He lost his chance through his sinning against God.(2) He lost his chance: but ours remains to us yet; and this is of vast importance and demands our notice as living men. While the hours linger salvation is possible anyone who will come with patience seeking it, and even a great bad record may be blotted from the book of God's remembrance by the blood of Christ.
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
1. Proud preference of his own will to God's, carried out boldly in the life; deadly jealousy, that coloured and distorted his view of things, determined the special mould of his character and destiny, and threw over both deep shades of darkness; cruelty, that was causeless as against an innocent man, unnatural as against a son-in-law, sacrilegious, in smiting without scruple a whole city of priests with their families; impiety, that dared to stand up against God. Potentially the tyrant lurked in the king, the monster in the man. Circumstances alone would not, could not, make him such as he became. They helped to mould and colour his character, and gave it its peculiarity of aspect. But the regulating power lay within. From the same circumstances a different character would have been fabricated by a different disposition. Does not the same sunlight nourish Hemlock and All-heal, the Nettle and the Lily, the Thistle and the foodful Grain? Do not all flowers drink their own colours from the same flood of sunbeams? Even so, the plastic power of evil within employed for deadly harm the very circumstance which another would have turned to good and holy purposes.
2. His careless naturalism of heart. Let us call it by its Scripture name: "carnal mindedness." This was the warp on which were woven all the glaring designs of his life. His heart was never broken by a sense of sin, or melted with the love of God, or touched by the marvellous grace that shone in the economy of type and shadow.
II. THE MORAL PURPOSES OF HIS REIGN.
1. Punitive. His whole reign was a judgment. Disaffection, despondency, internal strife, and enfeebled power, were but different aspects of the same black cloud. It was throughout a ministry of retribution.
2. Disciplinary. These terrible years had a forward as well as a backward look. The harvest of the past they were also the seed time of the future.(1) The Divine holiness was solemnly held forth. Every new infliction of judgment was a new demonstration of God's hatred of sin.(2) Conviction of sin. This would be the very result of an impression of Divine purity. The inference in a quickened conscience, would be immediate and pressing. Instinctively the contrast would be felt. The conviction of impurity would be the dark dreadful shadow of Divine intolerance of it.(3) Turning to God again. Left, for this dark series of years, to follow their own ways, with a king as they desired and such as hey would have chosen, it was proved to them how foolish they were to separate themselves in the smallest measure from the God whose love had guarded them. They could not direct their own steps. It was suicidal weakness to think of walking alone. Their weary hearts looked wistfully back from the gloom that had settled on the land to that happier sunshine which now seemed gleaming on those vanished years of closer allegiance to God.
3. Instructive.(1) The meeting of two lines of providential agency in the accomplishment of a certain intended result — a principle which finds frequent illustration in the early history of the New Testament Church, as when Simeon and the Infant Saviour, Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Ananias, from different points, were borne divinely to a meeting.(2) The judicial arranging of events and circumstances so as to make the sources of perplexity, temptation, and ruin, to the wilful soul — an awful truth which has been repeating itself in actual life ever since Pharaoh, in his infatuation, hastened after Israel because "the wilderness had shut them in." But these truths, and many like them, were developed by particular occurrences in the life of Saul. When that life is looked at as a whole, it yields most useful lessons for men of every age.
1. No change of circumstance can slacken God's hold of His creatures. Convincing proof of this might have been given by a character and history directly the opposite of Saul's. But doubly impressive is the demonstration made by a life like his.
2. No human institution can of itself bring real blessings to a people. The Hebrews fondly dreamed that royalty would bring with it healing for all social ills. In their case the dream was not only baseless, but signally dishonouring to God. In every case it is really so. The folly of it is written conspicuously on all history. It is taught clearly by our common sense. With multitudes, a bright vision of happiness seems hovering over some great political amelioration yet to come. And it is to be feared that the noble instinct of our nature, which craves for true enjoyment, is bidden fill itself here. Deluded multitudes, to set down an immortal nature to these husks of the prodigal! True happiness is a heavenly gift. It is madness to seek it growing among the political improvements or social amenities of earth.
3. No combination of outward advantages can save or sanctify the soul of man. We cannot well conceive a human being surrounded by greater and more powerful means of improvement than was the first king of Israel.
4. There is in human nature a tendency to growth in evil. Here, again, Saul stands for the race. And in him this growth is terribly conspicuous. The modest man has come to stand without shame in the light of a public exposure; and he who had been so winningly regardful of the life of rebels now pants for the blood of the righteous, and barbarously sacrifices to the Moloch of his passion the whole innocent population of a city. Keeping pace with the monstrous growth of evil, and probably accounting for it, we observe in him the gradual consolidation of infernal agency. The human nature refused to admit its full operation all at once. At first the dark influence came in pulses over him, like the sullen ripples of the sea of death on a boat's resisting sides. But soon that influence gained so thorough a mastery that all sounds of resistance ceased. With terrible facility the infernal power abated the reluctancy of his nature, and at last identified itself so completely with him that all trace of a struggle vanished, and the occasional impulses of its first contact changed eventually to a steady and uniform influence. It would be comforting to believe that this appalling progressiveness was peculiar to Saul. But this consolation we dare not take. While differing from him in the line of descent, and in the circumstances, enormity, and visible effects of our growth in evil, that growth itself is beyond question. The heart gravitates to sin. A malign influence has breathed upon our race. As surely as the body of the newborn babe tends earthwards unsupported, its moral nature tends to corruption. Deeper and deeper it sinks into sin. Habit adds new strength to nature. Surrounding temptations hasten the speed of the soul's departure from God and holiness. How dreadful this downward pressure! What miracle has preserved the world from perishing by the excess of its own vices? A kindly Providence has done it.
(P. Richardson, B. A.)
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