I Samuel 31: The Death of Saul
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 23, 2008.
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcast live from the chapel of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those whom God has given you to love. I had a reminder this week that there are many people I’ve never met out there listening to these broadcasts. I took the children to dinner at Cloverdale Kitchen, and a man stopped by the table to ask if I was on the radio. At first I thought he was telling me that I was talking too loud, but he just wanted me to know that he recognized my voice and appreciated these broadcasts.
Today is the Sunday before Thanksgiving in the national calendar, and many of my students slipped out of town a little early so they would have more time with their families and friends at home. I’ll give a shout out to my theology students who have been working very hard this semester, often in very trying circumstances, and I wish them Godspeed in their travels. Thanksgiving is a day set aside to contemplate the many blessings we have in our lives, and it can be hard to be thankful in the midst of suffering. With that in mind, I want to give a shout out to my uncle Raymond as he recovers from surgery. I hope that during this holiday season you will allow yourself to feel the love of God that surrounds us and strengthens us even in the midst of pain and tragedy.
This coming Tuesday is the annual Winston-Salem Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service. This year it will be hosted by Temple Emmanuel. It is always a very meaning and beautiful service that brings neighbors from many different religious bodies together in a spirit of gratitude. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, which is the day Moravians sing the Hosanna as we begin our preparations for Christmas. It is one of my favorite traditions. Over the next four weeks members of Home Church will spend thousands of volunteer hours at Candle Tea, preparing for lovefeasts, providing music, being dieners, and a host of other joyful duties associated with our celebration of the incarnation. Despite the economic woes afflicting our land, we can still experience the true blessing of this glorious season of the year.
This week Madeleine and I were listening to Performance Today on NPR and they told a true story about a pianist who was performing in South Africa. Instead of hearing “bravo” or “encore”, he heard someone shout out that there was a white rhino behind him. As he was playing Moonlight Sonata, the elephants came out of the woods and were walking in time to the music. Eventually even the rhino was so touched by Beethoven’s music that he came closer to listen. It was a nice reminder that all of God’s creatures are bound together in God’s love, and that we are blessed that our human ears sometimes hear an echo of the music of heaven and even elephants can be graceful.
Our lesson today strikes a much more somber note, I’m afraid. For months we have been carefully reading the book of I Samuel, and this week we come to the end of the scroll. The story itself is so poignant that it does not need a lot of commentary. I’ll be reading chapter 31 from the translation of Hans Hertzberg.
Read ch. 31
Defeat of the Israelites We have been prepared for the defeat of the Israelites and the death of Saul for several chapters, but the final story is tersely given. Much of the book of I Samuel has been anticipating the end of Saul’s reign and the rise of David as king, but the biblical author does not rejoice in the death of the Lord’s Anointed. We are not reminded of the prophecies given by Samuel or the many ways in which Saul had undermined his own authority. The narrator merely gives the facts that the Philistines routed the Israelites and that Saul and his bodyguard were cut off from retreat. They were trapped on Mount Gilboa, and Saul’s sons died fighting for him. Such is the tragedy of war in which good men like Jonathan die young because of the decisions of their fathers.
Saul’s fear that David might supplant Jonathan as the next king were proven to be a chimera. David did not kill Jonathan; Jonathan died defending his father, and he might have lived had David been fighting with him. Saul witnessed the death of his dynasty before his enemies brought him down with “slings and arrows,” as Hamlet says. During this season of family gatherings, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Saul. I wonder how many fathers and mothers spend their lives trying to fulfill an ambition for their children only to destroy their children in the process. How many sons and daughters are slain on Mount Gilboa in our day?
Israel was defeated by the Philistines in a rout that was almost as bad as the one we read about at the beginning of the book. You may remember that the Israelites had demanded that Samuel appoint a king for them because the Philistines had overwhelmed them and taken the ark. They believed that a king could make their nation secure and that no harm would come to them as a result. They were willing to give up a great deal of their freedom and even some of their religious principles in order to have a strong protector on the throne. Samuel chose one of the tallest and bravest men of the tribe of Benjamin to be the king, and for years King Saul was the scourge of Philistia. But the Israelites learned the humbling truth that we cannot make ourselves invulnerable and that the quest for security may make us less safe. Saul always had a spear or sword in his hand, and in the end he and the Israelites were defeated by their neighbors.
Suicide of Saul Saul was wounded, and he knew that battle was lost. We can speculate that he went into the battle already resigned to defeat thanks to the message he received from the necromancer. He does not want to be taken alive back to Philistia, though. He knows all too well what would happen to him if were at the mercy of his enemies. He knows all too well how much they would delight in taking revenge on Saul who had slaughtered so many of their young men over the years. We have seen the dissolution of Saul as a man over the course of the book, especially in that penultimate scene when he is huddled on the floor of the witch’s hut, but in the end Saul reclaims his dignity. He does not love his life so much that he would prefer dishonor and abuse to death. In the Harry Potter books, the wise teacher Dumbledore repeatedly makes the point that there are worse things than death, which is something Saul knew.
He asks his armor-bearer, his most trusted follower, to have mercy and kill him. We can only imagine how hard this must have been for the young man. It would be like a president asking a Secret Service agent to shoot him. His primary purpose in life has been to protect the king and to die for him if necessary. The armor bearer was willing to take an arrow for Saul, but now the man he has served and loved and admired is broken and bleeding before him. “Have mercy and take my life,” Saul pleads. Those who have faced the difficult decisions related to end of life issues know how dreadful this plea is. Every nerve in your body and every synapse of your brain rebels against this request. You would do anything to prolong the life of a loved one, at least for a little while, but reality is often so different from your hopes and dreams. Saul pleads with his servant to end his life, but the young man cannot do it. It is a too horrible a demand, and his love is too weak to comply. Like David, he cannot raise his hand against the Lord’s Anointed even when commanded to do so.
And so in one of the most famous scenes in Western literature, Saul falls upon his own sword, ending his life. The biblical author does not describe the scene or offer any interpretation or judgment. For centuries, commentators have disagreed over whether the biblical author approved or disapproved of Saul’s actions. For the most part, Christians have seen Saul’s suicide as the end result of his long journey into madness and despair. This is one of the very few suicides recorded in Scripture, and it was a key verse used by the Catholic Church to justify the doctrine that suicide is a mortal and unforgiveable sin. For most of European history, victims of suicide were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground or given the ministrations of the Church. For the most part, Protestant churches took a less judgmental position and argued that victims of suicide were victims not criminals, and thus the church should be merciful to them and their families. Even so, Protestant commentators have tended to view Saul’s suicide almost as harshly as Catholics. His death is often portrayed as the final act of cowardice.
In modern times, commentators have moved away from blanket condemnation of Saul’s suicide, noting that in the context of the story, his actions seem reasonable and noble. It appears that the main point of this narrative is not that he took his life, but that neither his servants nor his enemies could kill the first king of Israel. He was defeated, but he went down to Sheol bravely where he knew Samuel waited. The armor bearer could not kill Saul, but he joined him in death by falling on his own sword. In verse 6 we can almost see the sweeping panoramic shot of the battle scene with the corpses of Saul, his three sons, the armor-bearer, and other brave Israelite soldiers as mournful music plays. The ruin of Saul’s reign was total.
When Saul fell, Israel fell and the Philistines captured their cities and lived in their homes. This is a grime reminder that in the ancient world, the fate of the leader often determined the fate of the people. The reason people prayed for the health of the king or queen was that they knew what could happen if the monarch faltered. Even in our modern industrialized democracies, we know all too well that the failures of presidents and prime ministers affect the lives of the people. It is a fool who hopes that a president or prime minister from a rival party fails. When our leaders fail, we fall with them.
Saul’s Corpse Saul avoided capture by taking his own life, but even in death he was humiliated. The Philistines stripped his armor, which was the custom in ancient times. It is a little disconcerting in the Iliad to read how gleefully warriors paused in their fighting to strip the bodies of their slain enemies, but that was one of the ways they were paid for their service to the king. Armor was also a trophy of victory. Nothing makes a man prouder than to take possession of his rival’s stuff so everyone can see. The trouble with being a scholar is that we don’t have much chance to do this. We don’t get to wear the doctoral hood of someone we’ve bested in an academic debate, for instance. But I did read in The New Yorker recently about a company that specializes in making “tombstones” for Wall Street firms to celebrate their victories over rival companies. These are plastic items that you can line up on a shelf commemorating great deals. A successful hostile take-over of a fast food chain, for instance, might be memorialized by a plastic hamburger being eaten by the firm’s logo.
The Philistines did something worse than take the armor of the dead, though. They desecrated the corpse of Saul and his sons, hanging their bodies on the walls of one of their cities. This was a primal cry of victory and warning to all who would oppose the Philistines. They were not the only folks to did this sort of thing. When the Holy Roman Emperor executed the leaders of the Protestant resistance in Prague in 1621, he had twelve of their heads mounted on the Charles Bridge as a warning to Protestants throughout the Empire. Vlad the Impaler was infamous for his treatment of the corpses of Muslims who had invaded Romania. Today we are much more sensitive about this kind of public display, and war criminals today try to hide the evidence of their atrocities, but even they often want their enemies to know what they did. Sometimes it is hard to believe that humans are indeed a little lower than the angels when they act in ways that animals never would dream of.
Honor in Death The story of Saul does not end with this humiliation, though. The people of Jabesh-gilead remembered that Saul had been the one who answered their cry for deliverance from Nahash the Ammonite. When they heard what the Philistines had done, they did not turn their back on Saul or scorn the memory of his former greatness. Presumably, many years had passed since Saul’s daring rescue before he had been anointed king, but the people of Jabesh-gilead did not let time dampen their gratitude, which is an important message for Thanksgiving.
All of the valiant men of the city, young and old, marched through the night, not to avenge Saul, but to reclaim his body from his enemies. We aren’t told if they had to fight the people of Bethshan or if they relied on stealth. What is important is that they were courageous and daring enough to bring Saul back in honor to Israel. They treated the bodies of the fallen with respect and buried the royal family under a sacred tamarisk tree. Unlike the Pharaohs, Saul had no tomb, but his people laid his bones to rest with honor and devotion. Today we do not know where his bones lie.
The End of I Samuel Thus ends the book of I Samuel and the story of Saul. If it were up to me, I would name this book the Book of Samuel and Saul because they are the two main characters. Though David is important in the book, most of his story is told in II Samuel. Over the course of the past year we have seen that I Samuel is a complicated and often difficult book that is striking in its historical realism. Many times, I think we have all been grateful that we are living in a much less violent and brutal age, but we have seen numerous parallels to our own time.
We have seen that the people in I Samuel had to make decisions in difficult situations where it was not always clear what the right answer would be. The book began with the story of Hannah offering her first son to the LORD in gratitude for getting pregnant, and then God chose her son to be the last and greatest judge of Israel. The book narrates times of tragedy and despair, such as when the Ark of the Covenant was taken from the land, and it tells how Samuel responded to crisis as a servant of the LORD.
Much of the book is about the first king of Israel, and we saw that it records two quite different perspectives on the monarchy. Within the book of I Samuel is a debate over government that remains lively in our day. The book makes many theological points related to God’s covenant with Israel, and the rise and fall of Saul was so remarkable, that the Israelites could only interpret it as the will of God. Much of the enduring value of I Samuel lies in its portrayal of the relationships between Saul, Jonathan, and David. These men are not stereotypes or theological symbols; they are complex individuals. At times they were brave and noble, but they could also be cruel and cunning.
There is no doubt that the main reason for writing I Samuel was to narrative and justify David’s rise to power, but in many ways it is Saul who is the most meaningful figure in the book. We saw Saul deliver his people but then slowly dissolve into paranoia, madness, and despair. Too often, preachers and scholars have condemned or simply ignored King Saul in their desire to exalt King David, but Saul was also the Lord’s Anointed and is one of the most tragic figures of biblical history.
Conclusion It seems appropriate to end our study of I Samuel by looking ahead to II Samuel and reading David’s lament upon hearing the news from Mount Gilboa. Though Saul and Jonathan died 3000 years ago, we may still be moved by David’s words. (Read II Samuel 2:19-27)
Next week in church we will sing about the coming of great David’s greater son. During the Advent season in this class we will take a look at the birth narratives of Jesus, beginning with the Gospel According to Luke.