Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now the Philistines fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa.CHAPTER XXXVI
THE DEATH OF SAUL.
1 Samuel 31:1-13.
THE plain of Esdraelon, where the battle between Saul and the Philistines was fought, has been celebrated for many a deadly encounter, from the very earliest period of history. Monuments of Egypt lately deciphered make it very plain that long before the country was possessed by the Israelites the plain had experienced the shock of contending armies. The records of the reign of Thotmes III, who has sometimes been called the Alexander the Great of Egypt, bear testimony to a decisive fight in his time near Megiddo, and enumerate the names of many towns in the neighbourhood, most of which occur in Bible history, of which the spoil was carried to Egypt and placed in the temples of the Egyptian gods. Here, too, it was afterwards that Barak encountered the Canaanites, and Gideon the Midianites and Amalekites; here "Jehu smote all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, and all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left none remaining; "here Josiah was slain in his great battle with the Egyptians; here was the great lamentation after Josiah's death, celebrated by Zechariah, "the mourning of Hadad-Rimmon in the valley of Megiddo; "in short, in the words of Dr. Clarke, "Esdraelon has been the chosen place of encampment in every great contest carried on in the country, until the disastrous march of Napoleon Bonaparte from Egypt into Syria. Jews, Gentiles, Saracens, Crusaders, Egyptians, Persians, Druses, Turks, Arabs, and French, warriors out of every nation which is under heaven, have pitched their tents upon the plains of Esdraelon, and have beheld their banners wet with the dews of Tabor and Hermon." So late as 1840, when the Pacha of Egypt had seized upon Syria, he was compelled to abandon the country when the citadel of Acre, which guards the entrance of the plain of Esdraelon by sea, was bombarded and destroyed by the British fleet. It is no wonder that in the symbolical visions of the Apocalypse, a town in this plain, Armageddon, is selected as the battle-field for the great conflict when the kings of the whole earth are to be gathered together unto the battle of the great day of Almighty God. As in the plains of Belgium, the plains of Lombardy, or the carse of Stirling, battle after battle has been fought in the space between Jezreel and Gilboa, to decide who should be master of the whole adjacent territory.
The Philistine host are said to have gathered themselves together and pitched in Shunem (1 Samuel 28:4), and afterwards to have gathered all their hosts to Aphek, and pitched by the fountain which is in Jezreel (1 Samuel 29:1). That is to say, they advanced from a westward to a northward position, which last they occupied before the battle. Saul appears from the beginning to have arranged his troops on the northern slopes of Mount Gilboa, and to have remained in that position during the battle. It was an excellent position for fighting, but very unfavourable for a retreat. Apparently the Philistines began the battle by moving southwards across the plain till they reached the foot of Gilboa, where the tug of war began. Notwithstanding the favourable position of the Hebrews, they were completely defeated. The archers appear to have done deadly execution; as they advanced nearer to the host of Israel, the latter would move backward to get out of range; while the Philistines, gaining confidence, would press them more and more, till the orderly retreat became a terrible rout. So utterly routed was the Israelite army that they do not appear to have tried a single rally, which, as they had to retreat over Mount Gilboa, it would have been so natural for them to do. Panic and consternation seem to have seized them very early in the battle; that they would be defeated was probably a foregone conclusion, but the attitude of a retreating army seems to have been assumed more quickly and suddenly than could have been supposed. If the Philistine army, seeing the early confusion of the Israelites, had the courage to pour themselves along the valleys on each side of Gilboa, no way of retreat would be left to their enemy except over the top of the hill. And when that was reached, and the Israelites began to descend, the arrows of the pursuing Philistines would fall on them with more deadly effect than ever, and the slaughter would be tremendous.
Saul seems never to have been deficient in personal courage, and in the course of the battle he and his shaft were evidently in the very thickest of the fight. "The Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Melchishua, the sons of Saul." Saul himself was greatly distressed in his flight by reason of the archers. Finding himself wounded, and being provided with neither chariot nor other means of escape, a horror seized him that if once the enemy got possession of him alive they would subject him to some nameless mutilation or horrible humiliation too terrible to be thought of. Hence his request to his armour-bearer to fall on him. When the armour-bearer refused, he took a sword from him and killed himself.
It may readily be allowed that to one not ruled habitually by regard to the will of God this was the wisest course to follow. If the Philistine treatment of captive kings resembled the Assyrian, death was far rather to be chosen than life. When we find on Assyrian monuments such frightful pictures as those of kings obliged to carry the heads of their sons in processions, or themselves pinned to the ground by stakes driven through their hands and feet, and undergoing the horrible process of being flayed alive, we need not wonder at Saul shrinking with horror from what he might have had to suffer if he had been taken prisoner.
But what are we to think of the moral aspect of his act of suicide? That in all ordinary cases suicide is a daring sin, who can deny? God has not given to man the disposal of his life in such a sense. It is a daring thing for man to close his day of grace sooner than God would have closed it. It is a reckless thing to rush into the presence of his Maker before His Maker has called him to appear. It is a presumptuous thing to calculate on bettering his condition by plunging into an untried eternity. No doubt one must be tender in judging of men pressed hard by real or imaginary terrors, perhaps their reason staggering, their instincts trembling, and a horror of great darkness obscuring everything. Yet how often, in his last written words, does the suicide bear testimony against himself when he hopes that God will forgive him, and beseeches his friends to forgive him. Does not this show that in his secret soul he is conscious that he ought to have borne longer, ought to have quitted himself more like a man, and suffered every extremity of fortune before quenching the flame of life within him?
The truth is, that the suicide of Saul, as of many another, is an act that cannot be judged by itself, but must be taken in connection with the course of his previous life. We have said that to one not habitually ruled by regard to the will of God, self-destruction at such a moment was the wisest course. That is to say, if he merely balanced what appeared to be involved in terminating his life against what was involved in the Philistines taking him and torturing him, the former alternative was by far the more tolerable. But the question comes up, - if he had not habitually disregarded the will of God, would he ever have been in that predicament? The criminality of many an act must be thrown back on a previous act, out of which it has arisen. A drunkard in a midnight debauch quarrels with his father, and plunges a knife into his heart. When he comes to himself he is absolutely unconscious of what he has done. He tells you he had no wish nor desire to injure his father. It was not his proper self that did it, but his proper self over-mastered, overthrown, brutalized by the monster drink. Do you excuse him on this account? Far from it. You excuse him of a deliberate design against his father's life. But you say the possibility of that deed was involved in his getting drunk. For a man to get drunk, to deprive himself for the time of his senses, and expose himself to an influence that may cause him to commit a most horrible and unnatural crime, is a fearful sin. Thus you carry back the criminality of the murder to the previous act of getting drunk. So in regard to the suicide of Saul. The criminality of that act is to be carried back to the sin of which he was guilty when he determined to follow his own will instead of the will of God. It was through that sin that he was brought into his present position. Had he been dutiful to God he would never have been in such a dilemma. On the one hand he never would have been so defeated and humiliated in battle; and on the other hand he would have had a trust in the Divine protection even when a bloody enemy like the Philistines was about to seize him. It was the true source alike of his public defeat and of his private despair that he indicated when he said to Samuel; "God is departed from me;" and he might have been sure that God would not have departed from him if he had not first departed from God. It is a most important principle of life we thus get sight of, when we see the bearing that one act of sin has upon another. It is very seldom indeed that the consequences of any sin terminate with itself. Sin has a marvelous power of begetting, of leading you on to other acts that you did not think of at first, of involving you in meshes that were then quite out of your view. And this multiplying process of sin is a course that may begin very early. Children are warned of it in the hymn - "He that does one fault at first, and lies to hide it, makes it two." A sin needs to be covered, and another sin is resorted to in order to provide the covering. Nor is that all. You have a partner in your sin, and to free yourself you perhaps betray your partner. That partner may be not only the weaker vessel, but also by far the heavier sufferer, and yet, in your wretched selfishness, you deny all share of the sin, or you leave your partner to be ruined. Alas! alas! how terrible are the ways of sin. How difficult it often is for the sinner to retrace his steps! And how terrible is the state of mind when one says, I must commit this sin or that - I have no alternative! How terrible was Saul's position when he said, "I must destroy myself." Truly sin is a hard, unfeeling master - "The way of transgressors is hard." He only that walketh uprightly walketh surely. "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, that walk in the law of the Lord."
The terrible nature of the defeat which the Israelites suffered on this day from the Philistines is apparent from what is said in the seventh verse - "And when the men of Israel that were on the other side of the valley, and they that were beyond Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook their cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them." The plain of Esdraelon is interrupted, and in a sense divided into two, by three hills - Tabor, Gilboa, and Little Hermon. On the eastern side of these hills the plain is continued on to the Jordan valley. The effect of the battle of Gilboa was that all the rich settlements in that part of the plain had to be forsaken by the Israelites and given up to the Philistines. More than that, the Jordan valley ceased to afford the protection which up to this time it had supplied against enemies from the west. For the most part, the trans-Jordanic tribes were exposed to quite a different set of enemies. It was the Syrians from the north, the Moabites and the Ammonites from the east, and the Midianites and Amalekites from the remoter deserts, that were usually the foes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. But on this occasion a new foe assailed them. The Philistines actually crossed the Jordan, and the rich pastures of Gilead and Bashan, with the flocks and herds that swarmed upon them, became the prey of the uncircumcised. Thus the terror of the Philistines, hitherto confined to the western portion of the country, was spread, with all its attendant horrors, over the length and breadth of Israel. We get a vivid view of the state of the country when David was called to take charge of it. And we get a vivid view of the worse than embarrassment, the fatal crime, into which David would have been led if he had remained in the Philistine camp and taken any part in this campaign.
How utterly crushed the Philistines considered the Israelites to be, and how incapable of striking any blow in their own defense, is apparent from the humiliating treatment of the bodies of Saul and his sons, the details of which are given in this chapter and in the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles (chap. 10). If there had been any possibility of the Israelites being stung into a new effort by the dishonour done to their king and princes, that dishonour would not have been so terribly insulting. But there was no such possibility. The treatment was doubly insulting. Saul's head, severed from his body, was put in the temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:1-14.); his armour was hung up in the house of Ashtaroth; and his body was fastened to the wall of Beth-shan. The same treatment seems to have been bestowed on his three sons. The other part of the insult arose from the idolatrous spirit in which all this was done. The tidings of the victory were ordered to be carried to the house of their idols as well as to their people (l Sam. 21:9). The trophies were displayed in the temples of these idols. The spirit of vaunting, which had so roused David against Goliath because he defied the armies of the living God, appeared far more offensively than ever. Not only was Israel defeated, but in the view of the Philistines Israel's God as well Dagon and Ashtaroth had triumphed over Jehovah. The humiliation suffered in the days when the ark of God brought such calamities to them and their gods was now amply avenged. The image of Dagon was not found lying on its face, all shattered save the stump, after the heads of Saul and his sons had been placed in his temple. Yes, and the nobles at least of the Philistines would boast that the slaughter of Goliath by David, and the placing of his head and his armour near Jerusalem - probably in the holy place of Israel - were amply avenged. Well was it for David, we may say again, that he had no share in this terrible battle! Henceforth undoubtedly there would be no more truce on his part towards the Philistines. Had they not dishonoured the person of his king? had they not insulted the dead body of Jonathan his noble friend? had they not hurled new defiance against the God of Israel? had they not spread robbery and devastation over the whole length and breadth of the country, and turned every happy family into a group of cowering slaves? Were this people to be any longer honoured with his friendship? "O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united!"
The only redeeming incident, in all this painful narrative, is the spirited enterprise of the men of Jabesh-gilead, coming to Beth-shan by night, removing the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall, and burning them with all honour at Jabesh, Beth-shan was a considerable distance from Gilboa, where Saul and his sons appear to have fallen; but probably it was the largest city in the neighbourhood, and therefore the best adapted to put the remains of the king and the princes to open shame. Jabesh-gilead was somewhere on the other side of the Jordan, distant from Beth-shan several miles. It was highly creditable to its people that, after a long interval, the remembrance of Saul's first exploit, when he relieved them from the cruel threats of the Ammonites, was still strong enough to impel them to the gallant deed which secured honourable burial for the bodies of Saul and his sons. We are conscious of a reverential feeling rising in our hearts toward this people as we think of their kindness to the dead, as if the whole human race were one family, and a kindness done nearly three thousand years ago were in some sense a kindness to ourselves.
That first exploit of Saul's, rescuing the men of Jabesh-gilead, seems never to have been surpassed by any other enterprise of his reign. As we now look back on the career of Saul, which occupies so large a portion of this book, we do not find much to interest or refresh us. He belonged to the order of military kings. He was not one of those who were devoted to the intellectual, or the social, or the religious elevation of his kingdom. His one idea of a king was to rid his country of its enemies. "He fought," we are told, "against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, and against the children of Ammon, and against Edom, and against the king of Zobah, and against the Philistines: and whithersoever he turned himself he vexed them. And he did valiantly and smote Amalek, and delivered Israel out of the hands of them that spoiled them." That success gave him a good name as king, but it did not draw much affection to him; and it had more of evil than in conferring on them positive good. Royalty bred in Saul what it bred in most kings of the East, an imperious temper, a despotic will. Even in his own family he played the despot. And if he played the despot at home he did so not less in public. All that we can say in his favour is, that he did not carry his despotism so far as many. But his jealous and in so far despotic temper could not but have had an evil effect on his people. We cannot suppose that when jealousy was so deep in his nature David was the only one of his officers who experienced it. The secession of so many very able men to David, about the time when he was with the Philistines, looked as if Saul could not but be jealous of any man who rose to high military eminence. That Saul was capable of friendly impulses is very different from saying that his heart was warm and winning. The most vital want in him was the want of godliness. He had little faith in the nation as God's nation, God's heritage. He had little love for prophets, or for men of faith, or for any who attached great importance to moral and spiritual considerations. His persecution of David and his murder of the priests are deep stains than can never be erased. And that godless nature of his became worse as he went on. It is striking that the last transaction in his reign was a decided failure in the very department in which he had usually excelled. He who had gained what eminence he had as a military king, utterly failed, and involved his people in utter humiliation, in that very department. His abilities failed him because God had forsaken him. The Philistines whom he had so often defeated crushed him in the end. To him the last act of life was very different from that of Samson - Samson conquering in his death, Saul defeated and disgraced in his.
Need we again urge the lesson? "Them that honour Me I will honour; but they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed." You dare not leave God out in your estimate of the forces that bear upon your life. You dare not give to Him a secondary place. God must have the first place in your regards. Are you really honouring Him above all, prizing His favour, obeying His will, trusting in His word? Are you even trying, amid many mortifying failures, to do so? It is not the worst life that numbers many I failure, many a confession, many a prayer for mercy and for grace to help in time of need, provided always your heart is habitually directed to God as the great end of existence, the Pole Star by which your steps are habitually to be directed, the Sovereign whose holy will must be your great rule, the Pattern whose likeness should be stamped on your hearts, the God and Father of your Lord Jesus Christ, whose love, and favour, and blessing are evermore the best and brightest inheritance for all the children of men.
End of Vol. I