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.
The Philistines came to strip the slain.
(T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.).
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