A Convenient End
Preached by Jason Abbott
College football season is upon us. And, I’m confident this will be the year in which Missouri wins its first national title. I’m even more confident, however, that there will be many times during the season where your team has begun to play, but the game before your team’s game hasn’t quite ended yet. And when it ends, they won’t go directly to your team’s game—no, no, no! Instead, they’ll conclude by interviewing the winning coach of the game that has just ended.
He will say breathtakingly important things like: I’m so proud of my players, they stuck in there. Right now our focus is on the next game. You got to give credit to the other team; they really played tough. (Wow, thanks coach captain-obvious. That postgame interview really changed my life. Now turn on my game!!!)
Well, something like that takes place here in this final passage of 1st Samuel. The book’s narrator transitions from our coverage of David to our coverage of Saul with something like—“We now join the Battle of Gilboa in progress.”1
So let’s join the battle already in progress then pray for God to teach us.
1 Samuel 31:1-13
1 Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. 3 The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. 4 Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5 And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. 6 Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. 7 And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. 10 They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. 11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 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 Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.
As we study these 13 verses, we’ll see: (1st) triumph in the midst of tragedy, (2nd) idolatry in the midst of death, and (3rd) hope in the midst of defeat.
1. Triumph in tragedy (vv. 1-2)
As we jump into the action already in progress, we find out that our team is in really bad trouble. In fact, the game is all but over. They’re taking a thrashing from the Philistines.
Worst of all, however, is the report that our young superstar’s career is over. In a very matter of fact way, the narrator tells us that Saul’s son, Jonathan, is dead:
. . . the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul (v. 2).
This is all we get here from our commentator. It’s consequently very easy for us to move past Jonathan’s death without asking what we can and should learn from his life. But let’s not move by him too quickly; let’s stop to consider his life. After all, he’s been a very significant figure throughout the narrative of 1 Samuel. The picture we’re given of him is overwhelmingly positive. Recall:
- Because of Jonathan’s faith, he courageously won a battle against all odds and inspired the nation of Israel to victory over Philistia (1 Samuel 14).
- And that same trust in the Lord kept him humble despite his many successes in battle. So humble, in fact, that he was happy to give his right to the throne to David because God had ordained it (1 Samuel 18). That’s true humility!
What then do we learn from Jonathan’s life and death? We could easily draw from it the wrong kinds of lessons—tragic lessons: lessons about a life cut short; lessons about the sins of fathers visited upon their sons; sad hypothetical lessons about what could have or should have been. But those are not the right lessons. One commentator put the lesson we should learn from Jonathan’s life in this way:
. . . maybe [Jonathan’s story] is not tragic at all. What is tragic about remaining faithfully in the calling God has assigned us? Was it tragic when Jonathan laid aside a kingdom he could not have to enter a kingdom he could not lose?2
Friends, this is not human reasoning here. This is the very wisdom of God. What makes for a successful life, a glorious life, a life well lived?
I recently read the story of Jamison and Kathryne Pals and their 3 children—3-year-old Ezra, 23-month-old Violet, and 2-month-old Calvin. While driving through Nebraska in order to make some last preparations before leaving for Japan as missionaries, their car was struck by a semi-truck and the entire family killed.3 And the story made me weep. We should weep when we hear about or experience, in our own lives, such fallen world things.
Yet, in the case of Jonathan and the Pals, it’s not tragic, at least, in the ways in which we usually define tragic—as something pointless or pathetic or joyless. No, it is actually exemplary and glorious and joyful. For they have in reality:
. . . fought the good fight, [they] have finished the race, [they] have kept the faith…[and theirs is] the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Friends, we must learn this lesson from Jonathan. At the moment an arrow or sword (or whatever it was) ended his life, he had no regrets. Rather, he entered into indescribable victory. That tragedy was his triumph. His was a life well lived. What will mine be? What will yours be?
Well, let’s get back to this already-in-progress battle and study our 2nd point. Let’s consider the death of Saul.
2. Idolatry in death (vv. 3-5)
If you can say anything about Saul, then you can say he was true to his idol of convenience—his easy way idol—to the very end. As we’ve seen in our study, this has been Saul’s formula throughout most of his kingship. Think about it:
- If a prophet says something he doesn’t like, he ignores him (1 Samuel 15).
- If priests help someone he doesn’t like, he kills them (1 Samuel 22).
- If anyone crosses him, he tosses a spear at him (1 Samuel 18, 19, and 20).
You might wonder how Saul is worshiping the easy way. How can someone, in his or her death, bow-down to an idol of convenience? Well, simply take a look at what he does when death is his only option. Our narrator reports:
The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not . . . Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it (vv. 3-4).
Notice that Saul has only two options at this point—to die by his own hand (because his armor bearer won’t strike him down) or by the hand of his enemies (whom he fears will torture and kill him). Escape is no longer a possibility for him because he’s so “badly wounded.” So, what’s the most convenient end for Saul? What’s the most expedient or preferable way to die?
Just fall on your own sword, of course.
Let me say honestly that I sympathize with Saul’s predicament at this point. It’d be awful to face a torturous, mocking death at the hand of the Philistine army. It’d be very tempting to fall on one’s own sword. Yet, what’s missing in this scene, as it has been during most every scene during Saul’s kingship, is any consideration of God’s reign in his decision making . . . even in his decision to commit suicide.
Saul—by worshiping his god of convenience—behaves as a practical atheist. His individual desires govern his world. He is the god of all things; he has power over life and power over death. So, with the final vestiges of control which remain, he takes his sword and falls on it. No prayer. No repentance. No God but himself over life and death.
The Marquis de Sade was an 18th century French intellectual and playwright who was also a very consistent atheist. He famously said, concerning his morality: “What is is right.” What did he mean by this? Well if there is nothing transcendent, no God outside of this material world, then what’s considered to be right or wrong in life is determined by power—what one can do; or what one can get away with. A more common way of expressing this is: “Might makes right.”
Friends, de Sade is completely right if there is no Creator God of all things who has established his law—his right and his wrong. If, however, God does exist and if God has spoken to us about what is right and what is wrong, then we can’t—as Saul does throughout his life—presume to have the final say on such matters. We can’t presume to be the ones who determine when life—even our own lives—should end. Rather, this is the prerogative of God alone.
And, while the king of Israel misses this truth even a peasant woman sees it. So Hannah sings at the beginning of this book:
The Lord brings death and makes alive; / [only] he brings down to the grave and raises up (1 Samuel 2:6).
Friends, let me conclude this 2nd point by saying that, in our modern culture, Christians will progressively be like Hannah—like disenfranchised peasants—singing God’s praises and speaking God’s truths about when life both truly begins and truly ends. And we must do it because we don’t believe that “What is is right.” We must do it because we believe that humans are more than random collections of molecules that by chance lived and survived.
We must do it because we are all God’s image bearers, and that makes each and every human being uniquely beautiful and supremely valuable. We must do it in order to worship God.
Well, let’s turn to our 3rd and final point.
3. Hope in defeat (vv. 6-13)
We don’t want to miss how bad this defeat is. It could be described as a kind of first exile from the land for the Israelites. Their army is completely defeated, and their king is dead. Moreover, note how their conquest of the land is reversed. Look at what the text says:
And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them (v. 7).
It was supposed to be the other way around. Israel was to reside in homes and cities it didn’t build. Israel was supposed to inherit the land not flee from it. This seems to be a complete and total defeat for God’s people and, thus, for God. Our narrator, however, doesn’t leave us without hope.
Some courageous men from Jabesh-gilead hear about the mutilation of Saul and his sons, then stage a daring rescue in order to give the bodies a proper burial and in order to honor (no matter how wayward he’d become) Saul, Israel’s 1st king. Make no mistake about it. This rescue is a daring and beautiful act of worship. They are thumbing their noses at the idols of the Philistines in order to praise God. There are still some in Israel who trust in the Lord. There is hope.
Moreover, the book of 1st Samuel ends with the burial of Saul and his sons. Our narrator leaves us looking at a fallen king’s grave while, simultaneously, anticipating the resurrection of the kingdom; for we know that the true king, David, is alive and is well and is on the move. There is hope in the midst of this defeat. And this is so very like God; isn’t it?
- When Adam and Eve are defeated by the Serpent, God gives them a promise about a Serpent-crusher who is to come. Hope in the midst of defeat!
- When Abraham and Sarah are as good as dead in old age to bear children, God visits them and assures them that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Hope in the midst of defeat!
- When Joseph contemplates divorcing Mary quietly because she’s pregnant and must have been unfaithful to him, God sends word to him by an angel telling him that the boy is of the Spirit and will save God’s people from sin. Hope in the midst of defeat!
In fact, this very theme stands as the center and foundation of Christianity. The Church celebrates Jesus Christ who through apparent defeat, death on a cross, saved us from our sins and put death to death for all those who would trust in him. There were three days of apparent defeat then hope burst forth from death.
I don’t know what kind of defeat you may be in the midst of this morning. You may be experiencing marital strife and thinking about divorcing your spouse. You may be dealing with financial hardships and losses that cause you to wonder whether you’ll be able to pay your bills. You may be sick. You may be depressed. There could be any number of things by which you may feel defeated.
Let me say, realistically, that there are no convenient answers to such things. You may deal with some defeats for the rest of your earthly life. But there is hope. There are people in the church who will walk with you now. Who’ll cry with you. Who’ll counsel you. So you aren’t alone.
And, there is hope. There’s an empty grave. Not at all like Saul’s grave. There is a living and reigning King. Infinitely greater than the great King David whose reign we anticipate at the end of 1st Samuel. There is a coming Kingdom. Where every tear will be wiped away, and where joy will abound endlessly.
There is hope in the midst of defeat when we trust in Christ. Amen.