By J.R. Miller
1 Samuel 31
The story of the last days of Saul's life is very sad. God had departed from him, and he had no heavenly guidance. He was drifting like a crippled vessel on the ocean. In the great crisis, when he must fight his decisive battle with the Philistines, he turned in his despair to superstition and imposture. He had cried to heaven--but no answer had come.
Saul had been most fierce and zealous in driving from the land all those who claimed to know the secrets of the future and of the invisible world. He did not dream that the time would ever come when he would search the country for a sorcerer for himself.
The account of the king's visit to the witch of Endor is most pathetic. The Philistines had gathered their forces together for battle against Israel. When Saul saw the great army that he must meet, consternation seized him. In numbers they were far beyond his own army. In his fear he went to God--but only in formal ways. His heart was not penitent--but in a mechanical way he tried the means that were in common use to get guidance and help from God. "But the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets." This may seem strange to some readers, when it is remembered how gracious God is--and how He loves to answer prayer. The trouble was with Saul himself. God had not failed--but Saul's heart was so hardened, that there really was no true prayer made by him to God.
When Saul had gone under cover of the night to Endor, he found the witch and implored her to bring Samuel to him from the dead. She had no power to call anybody from the dead--but, to her amazement, Samuel appeared before her. God seems to have sent him in a supernatural way--to tell Saul of his awful doom. Saul heard the hopeless words from Samuel's lips, and then, with despairing heart, went back through the darkness to his tent. When the battle was on next morning, Saul led his army to defeat and disaster, because he had sinned and lost the Divine favor. It is idle and useless to fight against God. Then it is just as idle and useless to try to live without the Divine help. The battle went against Saul from the very beginning. "The men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa." The hottest fight was against the king and his sons.
"The Philistines slew Jonathan." We cannot but grieve at this sad record. We have learned to love Jonathan, as we have seen in him so much that was noble and beautiful. It adds to the pathos of Jonathan's death, too, to remember that he was dragged down by his father's sin. Had Saul proved himself a true and worthy king, Jonathan would have been his successor on the throne. But on account of his father's failure, he lost the crown, and not only this--but died in the disaster in which his father fell.
The sins of parents may cut off and destroy the hopes of their children and rob them of their birthright honors and blessings. There are thousands of children whose lives are blighted, sometimes for both worlds--by the evil ways of their parents. In this case, the brave, noble, manly Jonathan perishes in the calamity brought on by his father's persistent disobedience. The guilty father drags down with him--his pure, noble and blameless son. No man can go on in a sinful life, without involving his family as well as himself in sorrow.
Saul's sons appear to have fallen early in the battle. Saul became the center of the assault. "The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically." There are few sadder pictures in all history than this of Saul on Mount Gilboa rushing on to his doom with the madness of despair. Judgment will surely come to those who persist in sin. Saul wrecked his own destiny. God's plan for him was that he should be a worthy king. He was the goodliest man in all the nation. His mission was to lead his people to victory over all their enemies. Instead of this noble record, however, the story of his life is one of defeat and disaster. The reason is not far to seek.
God made no mistake in naming Saul as king. He might have been all that was in God's plan for him. The failure was his own. He would not accept God's guidance, and thus he failed to fulfill the Divine purpose for himself. Many years before this time, the doom of Saul had been pronounced upon him by the prophet. Judgment lingered--but did not fail in the end. Men may live in sin--and no disaster come to them. God may seem to be taking no account of their evil deeds. The sun may shine brightly over them, the rain may fall gently upon them, prosperity may continue to follow them. But let them not think that God has forgotten to be just. "He who being often reproved hardens his neck--shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy!"
When Saul saw that there was no hope of retrieving the battle, he knew that he must soon fall into the hands of the Philistines, and he knew also that they would inflict upon him all the insults and indignities they could possibly devise. Terrible as war always is, its horrors have now been greatly mitigated by the advance of civilization. Prisoners are now treated with as great a measure of kindness as is possible in the circumstances.
Prisoners taken in war in ancient times suffered untold tortures and humiliations. On Assyrian monuments, for instance, are found representations of kings compelled to carry the heads of their own sons, or pinned to the ground by stakes driven through their hands and feet, or being flayed alive. If the Philistines treated captive kings as the Assyrians did, it is no wonder that Saul had a horror of being taken alive by the enemy. It is no wonder, perhaps, either, that he resorted to suicide to save himself from the hands of the Philistines. First, he besought his armor-bearer to thrust him through, and when the armor-bearer refused, he took his own sword and fell upon it.
Suicide is a violation of the sixth commandment. Human life is sacred in God's sight, and to touch it is a crime. Life is the gift of God entrusted by Him to each one of us, and it is to be cherished and preserved, until He Himself calls back His gift. Suicide is unfaithfulness to this trust. We are required to use our life in the work assigned to us, and cannot without gravest sin--lay it down until the time God has appointed.
Suicide is also an act of moral cowardice. It is committed usually, as in Saul's case, to escape meeting some other trouble or danger. Saul killed himself, rather than fall into the hands of the Philistines to be tortured and humiliated. A man commits a crime, and, rather than face his deed before men--he takes his own life. He forgets that in doing this--he is rushing into another Presence far more terrible than the presence of man! Saul escaped the cruelty of the Philistines that day--but went, stained with this last crime of self-murder, to meet his God!
It has been said, "Saul had really prepared for himself this wretched death. He had disregarded the prophet, and so was without consolation. He had killed the priests, and so was without sacrifice or intercession. He had driven away David, and so was without the help of the best soldier in the nation. He had lived, in his later years, at least, like a madman; and like a madman he threw himself on his sword and died. As a man sows--so shall he reap. As a life is shaped by its own deeds, so is the death determined. One lives a selfish life, hardening his heart against appeal and reproach--and his doom is to lose all experience of sympathy. He passes through the world winning no love--and he passes out of the world leaving after him no regret."
The defeat of the Israelites was complete and overwhelming. In the humiliating treatment of the bodies of the king and his sons, we have a hint of the cruelty the Philistines would have practiced upon Saul, if they had taken him alive. Saul's head was cut off and put in the temple of Dagon, his armor was hung up in the house of Ashtaroth, and his body was fastened to the wall of Beth-shan. The bodies of his sons were treated in the same barbarous way.
There is only one incident in all this terrible story of the death of Saul, which has any brightness in it. This is what is told of the men of Jabesh-gilead: "And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard concerning him that which the Philistines had done to Saul, 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 burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days." It was a brave and noble thing which these men did. It is especially beautiful because of the motive which inspired it. Once, when Saul was just beginning his reign, he did a great kindness to the people of Jabesh-gilead. Now, when Saul was dead, forsaken, without friends, his body mutilated and dishonored, the memory of this kind act revived, and under the spur of gratitude these valiant men, at the risk of their own lives, did this heroic deed.
The worst men always have someone to mourn them. Never was there a tyrant who did more crimes and cruelties than Nero. One would say that he was incapable of kindness to anyone, and that no one mourned his death. Yet it is recorded that on the morning after he was buried amid universal execration, some unknown hand strewed flowers upon his grave. There was one person, at least, who remembered Nero gratefully. When we read of the kindness of the men of Jabesh-gilead to their dead king, we cannot but recall another instance of a King who hung dead on a cross, when two friends, long secret and silent, came forward to do honor to the torn and dishonored form. It was a brave and noble deed, and it saved that sacred body from being cast away with the bodies of common malefactors, giving to it, instead of such dishonor, most honorable and loving burial.
Saul owed all the honor he received in his burial, to one kind deed which he had done many years before. Had his reign continued as it began--he would have had the gratitude of a whole nation when he came to die. One of the most pitiable things in history--is the terrible failure which Saul made of his life. We should try to live so that we shall be remembered with gratitude, and leave behind us a memory of good deeds. This is one lesson.
Another is that we never should fail to show gratitude to anyone who has conferred a favor upon us. Then, let us be sure that we so live as to obtain honor from God when we come to the end of our life. If we miss that, earth's most brilliant honor will be failure and mockery. The way to get the crown from God's hand at last--is to do God's will always here.
Amid all the sad things in the story of Saul, the incident of his kindness in his early years to the people of Jabesh-gilead lives like a rose in a field of thorns. It is told of a noted criminal, that once in his young manhood days, he had caught a runaway horse in the street and saved the lives of a woman and her child in the carriage the wild animal was dragging after him. His life was a long list of evil things, with nothing in all its years that could be commended. But when waiting in his prison for the death penalty, his mind would revert continually to the memory of the one heroic kindness done in his youth, finding in this a gleam of hope.
So does Saul's one brave kindness shine in the dark story of his life. We should seek to fill our whole life with deeds of love, and then we shall have glad memories to give us comfort in looking back over our life. One of the sayings of Lincoln suggests a noble aim for life. "Die when I may," he said, "I want it said of me, by those who know me best--that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower--where I thought a flower would grow."