Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 31:1-13) Battle of Mount Gilboa—Death of Saul and his three Sons—Panic in Israel—The Philistines expose the King’s Body on the Wall of Beth-shan—The Citizens of Jabesh-Gilead rescue the Royal Corpse.
Now the Philistines fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa.(1) Now the Philistines fought against Israel.—The narrator here is very abrupt. No doubt a devoted patriot, it was very bitter for him to write the story of the fatal day of Gilboa. Yet there were certain things belonging to that fated day which were necessary for every child of Israel to know. It was right that the punishment of the rejected king should be known; right too that the people should be assured that the remains of the great first king lay in no unknown and unhonoured sepulchre. It was well too that coming generations should honour the devoted loyalty of the grateful men of Jabesh-Gilead. But the narrator hurries over his unwelcome task; very curtly he picks up the dropped threads of 1Samuel 28:1-5; 1Samuel 29:2. The march of the Philistines northward into the valley of Jezreel has been told, and their gallant array—as under the many banners of their lords they passed on by hundreds and by thousands—has been glanced at. The assembling of the armies of Israel at Shunem, overlooking the Jezreel vale, has been narrated; and there the historian dwelt on the terror of King Saul, which led to the visit to the witch of En-dor. David’s fortunes at this juncture then occupied the writer or compiler of the Book; but now he returns, with evident reluctance, to the battle which rapidly followed the En-dor visit of Saul.
He simply relates that the hosts joined battle. The locality of the fight is not mentioned, but it was most likely somewhere in that long vale which was spread out at the foot of the hills occupied by the hostile camps Israel was defeated, and fled upwards, towards their old position on the slope of Gilboa.
And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul's sons.(2) And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons.—“The details of the battle are but seen in broken snatches, as in the short scene of a battle acted upon the stage, or beheld at remote glimpses by an accidental spectator. But amidst the showers of arrows from the Philistine archers, or pressed hard even on the mountain side by their charioteers, the figure of the king emerges from the darkness. His three sons have fallen before him; his armourbearer lies dead beside him.”—Stanley: Jewish Church, Lect. 21
And the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Melchi-shua, Saul’s sons.—But while, in his own record of the national disaster, the compiler or historian, in his stern sorrow, expunges every detail, and represses every expression of feeling, he gives us in the next chapter (2Samuel 1:1-27) the stately elegy, in the beautiful moving words which the successor to the throne wrote on the death of the first king and his heroic son. Without comment he copies into his record the hymn of David on Saul and Jonathan, just as he found it in the Book of Jashar (the collection of national odes celebrating the heroes of the Theocracy). “There David speaks of the Saul of earlier times—the mighty conqueror, the delight of his people, the father of his beloved and faithful friend—like him in life, united with him in death.” (Stanley).
“Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives
And in their death they were not divided.
Than eagles they were swifter, than lions more strong.”
(2Samuel 1:23.) From the lost Book of Jashar.
Nothing is known of the two younger princes who fell fighting here by their father’s side, sword in hand against the enemies of their country.
The hero Jonathan and his two brave brothers, as far as we can gather from the scanty details of the battle after the army was routed in the valley of Jezreel, retreated (fighting all the while) to the hill of Gilboa. There, it seems, they made the last stand with the fideles of the royal house of Saul (1Samuel 31:6), and there, no doubt defending the king to the last, they fell.
And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was sore wounded of the archers.(3) And the battle went sore against Saul.—That is, after the death of Jonathan and his brothers. The great warrior king no doubt fought like a lion, but one by one his brave defenders fell in harness by his side; and the enemy seems to have directed their principal attention, at this period of the fight, to killing or capturing the famous Saul.
And the archers hit him.—It would seem as though, in that deadly combat, none could strike down that giant kingly form, so the archers—literally, as in the margin of our Version, shooters, men with bows, skilful shots—were told off, and these, aiming at the warrior towering above the other combatants, with the crown on his head (2Samuel 1:10), hit him.
And he was sore wounded by the archers.—This is the usual rendering of the word, but the more accurate translation is, He was sore afraid (or was greatly alarmed at them): so Gesenius, Keil, Lange, &c. All seemed against him. His army was routed, his sons were dead, his faithful captains and companions were gone, and these bow-men were shooting at him from a distance where his strong arm could not reach them. Gradually weakened through loss of blood—perhaps with the words he had heard only a few hours before at En-dor from the dead prophet ringing in his ears, “To-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me”—the great undaunted courage at last failed him, and he turned to his armourbearer, who was still by his side.
Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.(4) His armourbearer.—Jewish tradition tells us that this faithful armourbearer was Doeg, the Edomite, and that the sword which Saul took apparently from the hand of the armourbearer was the sword with which Doeg had massacred the priests at Gibeon and at Nob.
Lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me.—“Even in Saul’s dying speech there is something of that religious formalism which marked his character after his fall from God, and which is a striking sign of spiritual blindness. He censures the Philistines as ‘uncircumcised.’”—Wordsworth.
Saul had a strong consciousness of the sacredness of his person as the Lord’s anointed; as it has been well said of him, no descendant of a long line of so-styled Christian or Catholic sovereigns has held a loftier claim of personal inviolability.
And abuse me.—He remembered how these same Philistines in former years had treated the hero Samson when he fell into their hands.
His armourbearer would not.—Love and devotion to his master we can well imagine stayed his hand from carrying out his fallen master’s last terrible command. If the armourbearer—as the Jewish tradition above referred to asserts—was indeed Doeg the Edomite, the two, the king and his confidential officer, had been fast friends for years. Some dread of the after consequences, too, may have weighed with the royal armour-bearer, as he was to a certain extent responsible for the king’s life. What possibly he dreaded actually came to pass in the case of the Amalekite who told David that he was the one who inflicted the fatal stroke when the king was dying; as a guerdon for his act, David had him at once put to death for having put forth his hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed.
A sword.—It was a heavy weapon, a war sword, answering to the great epée d’armes of the Middle Ages. This he took from the reluctant hands of his faithful follower, and placing the hilt firmly on the ground, he threw the weight of his body on the point.
In 2Samuel 1:6-10 we have another account of the death. There an Amalekite bearing the royal insignia of the late king, the crown royal and the well-known bracelet of Saul, comes to David at Ziklag after the fatal fight, and recounts how, finding the king leaning on his spear—possibly, as Bunsen supposes, “lying on the ground propping his weary head with the nervously-clutched spear,” exhausted and seized with “cramp” (this is the Rabbinical translation of the word rendered “anguish”), at his urgent request, slew him. Most commentators—for instance, Kiel, Lange, Bishop Hervey, &c.—regard the Amalekite’s story as an invention framed to extract a rich gift from David, who, the savage Arab thought, would be rejoiced to hear of his great enemy’s fall. If this be so, then we must suppose that the Amalekite wandering over the field of battle strewn with the slain on the night which succeeded the battle, came upon the body of Saul, and, attracted by the glitter of the golden ornaments, stripped off the precious insignia, and hastened with his lying story to David. Ewald, however, sees no reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Amalekite’s story; in fact, the two accounts may well be harmonised. Stanley graphically paints the scene after he had fallen on his sword, and his faithful armourbearer had in despairing sorrow killed himself also. “His armourbearer lies dead beside him; on his head the royal crown, on his arm the royal bracelet; . . . the huge spear is still in his hand; he is leaning peacefully on it. He has received his death-blow either from the enemy (1Samuel 31:3), or from his own sword (1Samuel 31:4). The dizziness and darkness of death is upon him. At that moment a wild Amalekite, lured probably to the field by the hope of spoil, came up and finished the work which the arrows of the Philistines and the sword of Saul himself had all but accomplished.”—Jewish Church, Lect. 21. The words of the next verse (5) do not contradict this possible explanation. The armourbearer, seeing the king pierced with the arrows and then falling on his own sword, may well have imagined his master dead, and so put an end to his own life. But Saul, though mortally wounded, may have rallied again for a brief space; in that brief space the Amalekite may have come up and finished the bloody work; then, after the king was dead, he probably stripped the royal insignia from the lifeless corpse.
So Saul died.—This is one of the very rare instances of self-destruction among the chosen people. It seems to have been almost unknown among the Israelites. Prior to Saul the only recorded example is that of Samson, and his was a noble act of self-devotion—the hero sacrificed his life in order to compass the destruction of a great crowd of men, powerful and influential foes of his dear country. His death in the great Dagon Temple at Gaza ranks, as it has been well said, with the heroism of one dying in battle rather than with cases of despairing suicide. There is another instance after the days of Saul—that of the wise privy councillor of King David, Ahithophel, who, in a paroxysm of bitter mortification, we read, went and hanged himself. There is another in the Gospel story familiar to us all. Theologians are divided in their judgment on King Saul. S. Bernard, for instance, thinks that Saul was lost for ever. Corn, à Lapide, followed by Bishop Wordsworth, has no kindly thought for the great first king. The Jewish historian Josephus, on the contrary, writes in warm and glowing terms of the patriotic devotion with which Saul went to meet his end. Many of the Rabbis sympathise with Josephus in his estimate of the unhappy monarch. Without in any way justifying the fatal act which closed the dark tragedy of his reign, we may well plead in extenuation the awful position in which the king found himself that evening after Gilboa had been fought and lost, and we may well remember the similar conduct of Brutus, Cassius, and the younger Cato, and call to our minds what posterity has said of these noble heathens, and how far they have judged them guilty of causeless self-murder.
Well would it be for men when they sit in judgment on Saul, and on other great ones who have failed, as they think, in the discharge of their duties to God as well as to man—well would it be for once to imitate what has been rightly called “the fearless human sympathy of the Biblical writers,” and to remember how the “man after God’s own heart,” in strains never to be forgotten, wrote his touching lament over King Saul, dwelling only on the Saul, the mighty conqueror, the delight of his people, the father of his beloved and faithful friend, like him in life, united with him in death; and how with these words—gentle as they are lovely, inspired by the Holy Spirit—the Bible closes the record of the life, and leaves the first great king, the first anointed of the Lord, in the hands of his God.
So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.(6) And all his men.—We must not interpret this statement quite literally; 1Chronicles 10:6 explains it by “all his house.” Ishbosheth, his son, for instance, and Abner, the captain of the host, we know were not among the slain on that fatal day. The meaning is that all his “fideles,” his personal staff, as we should say, with his three sons fell fighting round him. The lines of the chivalrous Scottish ballad writer who with rare skill describes the devoted followers of King James V. falling round him at Flodden, well paints what took place on the stricken field of Gilboa round the hero king Saul:—
“No one failed him! He is keeping
Royal state and semblance still,
Knight and noble lie around him,
Cold, on Flodden’s fatal hill.
“Of the brave and gallant-hearted
Whom you sent with prayers away,
Not a single man departed
From his monarch yesterday.” AYTOUN.
And when the men of Israel that were on the other side of the valley, and they that were on the other side Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities, and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.(7) On the other side of the valley.—The words “on the other side of the valley” denote the country opposite to the battle-field in the valley of Jezreel, on which the writer supposes himself to be standing, the land occupied especially by the tribes of Issachar, Zabulon, and Napthali. The expression “on the other side of Jordan,” is the usual phrase for the country east of the River Jordan. It is highly probable that the alarm caused by the great defeat of their king caused many of the dwellers in the smaller cities and villages to the east of Jordan hastily to abandon their houses rather than be exposed to the insolence and demands of the invading army. Still the Philistine army in this direction could not have penetrated very far, as shortly after Gilboa we hear of Abner rallying the friends of the house of Saul round the Prince Ishbosheth, whom he proclaimed king at Mahanaim, a town some twenty miles east of the river. The country to the south of the plain of Jezreel does not appear to have been overrun by the victorious army. The presence of David in that part no doubt insured its immunity from invasion.
And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in mount Gilboa.(8) They found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa.—It is expressly stated that the Philistines only found the royal corpses on the morrow of the great fight. So desperate had been the valour with which the King and his gallant sons had defended their last positions on the hill, that night had fallen ere the din of battle ceased. Nor were the enemy aware of the completeness of their success until the morning dawn revealed to the soldiers as they went over the scene, the great ones who were numbered among the slain. In the mean time the Amalekite had found and carried off the crown and royal bracelet. Only the bodies of Saul and the princes, and the armourbearer, are spoken of here. The crown royal, which would have formed so splendid a trophy, was already taken.
How ghastly didst thou look, on thine own sword
Expiring: in Gilboa, from that hour
Ne’er visited with rain from heaven, nor dew.”
DANTE: Pura. 12
The curse of barrenness alluded to by the great Italian poet was called down on the hill where the first anointed of the Lord fell, and where the body was stripped and dismembered by the triumphant foe (2Samuel 1:21). Quickly the tidings were told, we learn, in the capital of Gath, and proclaimed through the streets of Askelon.
The historian with extreme brevity records the savage treatment of the royal remains, which, after all, was but a reprisal. The same generation had witnessed similar barbarous procedure in the case of Goliath, the great Philistine champion!
And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house of their idols, and among the people.(9) And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour.—Only Saul’s head and armour is mentioned here, but on comparing 1Samuel 31:12, where the bodies of his sons are especially mentioned, it is clear that this act was not confined to the person of the king. The sense of the passage there is, the heads of the king and his three sons were cut off, and their armour stripped from their bodies. The heads and armour were sent as trophies round about the different towns and villages of Philistia, and the headless corpses were fastened to the wall of the city of Beth-shan.
And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth: and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan.(10) The house of Ashtaroth.—Literally, of “the Ashtaroth.” The expression may signify that the pieces of armour belonging to the four men were divided between the different shrines of Astarte in the land, or placed together in the famous Astarte Temple, at Askelon, which Herodotus (i. 105) describes as the most ancient of the temples dedicated to the worship of the Syrian Venus. The latter supposition seems the more probable, as Askelon is specially mentioned by David in the funeral hymn of Saul and Jonathan (2Samuel 1:20).
The wall of Beth-shan.—Beth-shan was in the tribe of Manasseh, some four miles west of the Jordan, and twelve miles south of the sea of Galilee. We are told in Judges 1:27, that the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the city, were permitted by the conqueror to dwell still in the city. This Canaanitish element in the population was perhaps the reason why Beth-shan was chosen for the barbarous exhibition. The Canaanites would probably have welcomed the miserable spectacle which seemed to degrade their ancient enemies. The writer of the chronicle adds one more ghastly detail to this account: “They fastened the head (skull) of Saul in the Temple of Dagon.”
And when the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul;(11) The inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead.—The memory of the splendid feat of arms of their young king Saul, when he gallantly rescued their city (1Samuel 11:1-11) years before, when they were threatened with deadly peril by the Ammonites, was still fresh in the city of Jabesh-Gilead, and they burned to rescue the body of their hero from shame. It was singular how that first deed of splendid patriotism, done in the early fervour of his consecration, bore fruit after so many long years.
“Good deeds immortal are—they cannot die;
Unscathed by envious blight, or withering frost,
They live, and bud and bloom, and men partake
Still of their freshness, and are strong thereby.”
Jabesh-Gilead, a city of Manasseh, on the further side of Jordan, on the road from Pella to Gerasa. perhaps about fourteen miles from Beth-shan (see Judges 21:8, and following). Its name still survives in the Wady Yabez, running down to the east bank of Jordan, near the head of which are still visible some ruins named El Deir, which Robinson has identified with Jabesh-Gilead.
All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there.(12) And burnt them there.—This “burning the corpse” was never the custom in Israel, and was restricted to criminals convicted of a crime of the deepest dye (Leviticus 20:14). The Jews in all cases buried their dead. The Chaldee therefore interpret the words relating this act of the men of Jabesh-Gilead, in the case of Saul and the princes, as referring to the solemn burning of spices, a ceremony which was afterwards performed at the burial of some of the kings of Judah. (See 2Chronicles 16:14; 2Chronicles 21:19; Jeremiah 34:5.) But the language used in these cases is different; here it is expressly stated that “they burnt them.” The reason for their thus acting is clear. The mutilated trunks had been exposed for some days to the air, and the flesh was no doubt in a state of putrefaction. The flesh here only was burned. The bones (see next verse) were reverently and lovingly preserved, and laid to rest beneath the friendly shade of the great tamarisk tree of Jabesh.
And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.(13) A tree in Jabesh.—A tree, that is “the well-known” tamarisk (êshel). For Saul’s love for trees see as an instance 1Samuel 22:6. The men of Jabesh-Gilead well remembered this peculiar fancy of their dead king, and under the waving branches of their own beautiful and famous tamarisk they tenderly laid the remains of their dead hero and his princely sons.
Evidently King David, at a subsequent period, fetched away these royal remains, and had them reverently interred in the family sepulchre of Kish, the father of Saul, in Zelah of Benjamin (2Samuel 21:12; 2Samuel 21:14).
And fasted seven days.—This was the period the sons of Israel mourned for Jacob at the threshing floor of Atad beyond Jordan (Genesis 1:10). The grateful men of Jabesh-Gilead thus paid the last honours to the fallen Saul.
It is probable that the Talmudic rule which enjoins strict mourning for seven days (fasting was mourning of the strictest kind) was originally based on these two historic periods of mourning recorded in the case of the great ancestor of the tribes, Jacob, and of the first King Saul, although the curious tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud gives a special reason for the period—seven days. Rav. Chisda said: The soul of the deceased mourns over him the first seven days; for it is said, Job 14:22, “and his soul shall mourn over him.” Rav. Jehudah said: If there are no mourners to condole with, ten men sit down where the death took place. Such a case happened in the neighbourhood of Rav. Jehudah. After the seven days of mourning, the deceased appeared to Rav. Jehudah in a dream, and said “Mayest thou be comforted as thou hast comforted me.”—Treatise Shabbath, fol. 152, Colossians 2.
To this day among the Jews ten men are hired to perform the usual daily prayers during the seven days of mourning at the house of the deceased.
On the reason for the number seven being fixed for the period of mourning, we read again in the Seder Moed of the Babylonian Talmud, “How is it proved that mourning should be kept up seven days? “It is written, Amos 8:10 : “I will turn your feasts into mourning,” and these (usually) lasted seven days.—Treatise Moed Katon, fol. 20, Colossians 1.
“Again a long draught of my soul-wine! Look forth o’er the
Thou hast done now with eyes for the actual; begin with the
Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb, bid
A grey mountain of marble heaped four-square, till built to the
Let it mark where the great First King slumbers; whose fame
would ye know?
Up above see the rock’s naked face, where the record shall go,
In great characters cut by the scribe. Such was Saul, so ne
With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid—
For not half, they’ll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to
In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall
(See, in tablets, it is level before them) their praise, and record,
With gold of the graver, Saul’s story—the statesman’s great
Side by side with the poet’s sweet comment. The rivers
With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet
So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part
In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou