IV. Saul’s Sad Final Days and Death (1 Samuel 28:3–31:13)
IV. Saul’s Sad Final Days and Death (28:3–31:13)
A. Saul Consults a Medium (28:3-25)
28:3-7 Saul was in a bad place as the Philistines gathered their forces to go to war against Israel (28:4). He was afraid (28:5). But, he didn’t have a military problem alone; he also had a spiritual problem. The Lord’s prophet Samuel was now dead, and the Lord refused to respond to Saul’s inquiries for guidance (28:6). Previously, Saul had removed the mediums and spiritists from the land (28:3) in obedience to the law of Moses: “Do not turn to mediums or consult spiritists, or you will be defiled by them” (Lev 19:31; see also Deut 18:9-12). But now, desperate for supernatural guidance, Saul resorted to that which God had clearly prohibited (28:7). His failure as king over God’s people was total.
28:8-13 A medium was someone who consulted the dead to determine the future. Saul didn’t care about God’s law. He was desperate and wanted answers. So, he disguised himself and visited a medium so that she could consult a spirit for him (28:8). Because such people had been eradicated in Israel by the king, the woman was concerned that this was a sting operation (28:9). But, Saul promised she would be safe. So, as requested, she called up Samuel from the dead and was as shocked as anyone when the prophet actually appeared. Immediately, she recognized that her client was King Saul (28:11-12).
28:14-19 Rivers of ink have been spilled by commentators arguing for different views of whether this account was or was not actually a return of Samuel’s spirit from the dead. The text presents it as such in a straightforward way, rather than as a demon impersonating Samuel or suggesting the medium merely used her wiles to trick Saul. It’s doubtful that Saul would have been fooled by an impersonator, and Samuel’s message of judgment on Saul—including his loss of the kingdom to David, his impending death, and Israel’s defeat—were exactly what would come to pass. Thus, it would appear that God used an otherwise forbidden means to convey his verdict on a rebellious Saul.
When Saul asked Samuel for help, claiming that God had turned away from him, Samuel responded in effect, “Of course he has!” (28:15-18). Saul had disobeyed the Lord’s clear instructions, and the Lord had torn the kingship from Saul’s hands (28:17-18). Then, Samuel declared God’s final judgment on the house of Saul: Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me—that is, dead (28:19).
28:20-25 Samuel’s words caused the doomed king to fall flat on the ground. He was horrified and weak from lack of nourishment (28:20). Even the medium felt sorry for what must have been the pathetic sight of Israel’s king practically fainting in abject terror. She tried to persuade Saul to eat and finally got him to take a meal (28:22-25). The entourage finally left and returned to the Israelite camp (28:25). It would be Saul’s last night on earth.
B. David’s Movements (29:1–30:31)
29:1-5 Saul’s fate—and that of his sons and Israel’s army—had been sealed by the word of the Lord. The events of chapter 29 actually precede those of chapter 28 chronologically, but the incident with Saul and the medium provides the spiritual setting for Saul’s death and Israel’s defeat. When the text left David (27:12), he and his six hundred men were facing a dilemma in Philistine territory as they were expected to serve the Philistines militarily against the Israelites.
But, God providentially intervened. The Philistine commanders asked King Achish suspiciously, What are these Hebrews doing here? Achish was proud to introduce David who, as far as he was concerned, had been a valuable asset since the day he defected from Saul (29:3). But, the other commanders had long memories, and they valued their heads. They accused Achish of taking an incredibly dangerous risk in assuming that David would actually fight with them against his own people, instead of turning on them in order to ingratiate himself with his master, Saul (29:4). The song sung about David in Israel was still well-known in the land of Philistia (29:5).
29:6-8 There were five Philistine commanders representing the five major cities of their kingdom, of which Achish and Gath were only one. Though Achish believed in David, he was outvoted. So, with great reluctance, Achish called David and gave him the bad news. David was no doubt delighted that he was no longer expected to go to war against Israel. But, he played along with the charade, protesting this decision and emphasizing his past allegiance to the Philistines (29:8).
29:9-11 Achish trusted in David’s loyalty, but there was nothing he could do. David and his men were to leave the next day at first light so that they couldn’t interfere with the battle. They returned to the land of the Philistines (29:11), specifically to Ziklag, where he and his army would find a tragedy waiting for them that would threaten David’s leadership.
30:1-5 At Ziklag, David and his men found nothing but the smoke from a raid by the Amalekites who had burned the city and kidnapped the women and everyone in it from youngest to oldest (30:1-5). The men wept loudly until they had no strength left (30:4). Surely, no honorable husband and father can read about the horrifying scene without thinking of his own family and feeling a lump in his throat.
30:6 The deep grief in David’s army soon turned to fierce anger against him as the troops talked about stoning him. They probably blamed him for the decision to leave Ziklag defenseless as they fled to Gath to escape Saul. But David found strength in the Lord his God. He remembered that God had delivered him from lions and bears when he was a young shepherd (17:37), and he had delivered him from the hand of Saul numerous times.
David knew where to turn for help. As he operated in the earthly realm, his true strength and protection lay in the heavenly realm. This raises the question: To whom do you turn first when life’s troubles visit you?
30:7-10 David found divine direction when the priest Abiathar brought the ephod and David asked the Lord if a raid on the Amalekites would succeed. The answer was affirmative, including the encouraging message that he would rescue all the captives (30:7-8). With that word of assurance, David and his army set out in pursuit. And, when two hundred of his men became too tired to continue chasing the Amalekites, he made an executive decision (30:9-10) that would become important when it came time to divide the spoil after the battle.
30:11-20 David and the rest of his men continued on and met an Egyptian slave whose Amalekite master had left him behind when he couldn’t keep up with the raiders (30:11-15). God had providentially placed this man in David’s path, for he agreed to lead David to the Amalekites (30:15). As a result, David’s army arrived at the Amalek-ite camp at the best possible time. The bad guys were in the worst possible military and physical condition to defend themselves: they were spread out over the entire area, eating, drinking, and celebrating (30:16). So, David decimated the Amalekites and recovered everything from the smallest lamb to the smallest child (30:18-19). The victorious troops were so ecstatic they shouted, This is David’s plunder! (30:20).
30:21-25 As David prepared to divide the spoil among his men, he intended to include the two hundred men who had become too weary to continue the pursuit (30:21; see 30:9-10). But, the corrupt and worthless men among those who had gone with David objected (30:22). They didn’t want to share with the two hundred who stayed back with the supplies (30:22, 24). In effect, David asked how they could show such unkindness to their brothers in light of the protection they had received from the Lord (30:23). Therefore, his principle of equal sharing became a law and an ordinance for Israel (30:25).
30:26 Then, David made another wise and diplomatic move by sending gifts from the plunder to his friends, the elders of Judah, his own tribe. These gifts helped to reaffirm David’s loyalty to his people after his time among the Philistines. The Egyptian slave had told David that “the territory of Judah” was among the places the Amalekite raiders had looted (30:14). So, in returning the plunder to these Judean cities, David was restoring what they had lost.
30:27-31 Each of the cities mentioned here was in the territories of Judah and Simeon. David’s actions helped cement Judah’s loyalty to him, because it was the people of Judah who would later crown him as king (see 2 Sam 2:1-4). Hebron is worth noting (30:31) because David would be anointed king of Israel there and would rule from Hebron for more than seven years before capturing Jerusalem and moving his capital there (see 2 Sam 5:1-5).
C. Saul’s Death at Gilboa (31:1-13)
31:1-3 While the events of chapter 30 were taking place, the tragic battle that Samuel had prophesied (28:19) took place on Mount Gilboa between Israel and the Philistines (31:1). Following a common strategy in ancient warfare, the Philistines focused on Israel’s leaders, Saul and his sons (31:2). Jonathan and two of his brothers were killed, and Saul was severely wounded (31:2-3). Saul knew that if the Philistines found him alive, they would subject him to a slow, torturous end.
31:4-7 In an attempt to escape torture, Saul commanded his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword. But, the armor-bearer was too afraid and unwilling to lift his hand against the king, so he refused Saul’s command (31:4). As a result, Saul fell on his own sword and died (31:4-6). The battle was going so badly that when the men of Israel on both sides of the Jordan River saw that Saul was dead, they fled in panic and abandoned some cities so completely that the Philistines were able to settle in them (31:7).
31:8-10 The fact that the Philistines couldn’t torture Saul and display him as a trophy while he was alive didn’t keep them from dishonoring his body. They beheaded him, pinned his corpse on the wall at Beth-shan, a few miles from Gilboa, and put his armor in the temple of their gods as a sign of the power of their deities over the Lord (31:8-10). Saul’s disobedience to God and complete spiritual collapse ended tragically—not just for him and his family, but also for the people of Israel who had insisted that he be their king and who had ignored God’s warnings about their choice. Now, their king was dead, his family was decimated, Israel’s army was shattered, and the nation had lost part of its territory. Worst of all, the name of the Lord had been dishonored.
Importantly, Saul still could have enjoyed God’s blessing if he had chosen to obey the Lord with all of his heart. But, Saul’s half-hearted attitude toward God’s commands and quickness to excuse himself and blame others revealed the flaws of character that God knew would disqualify him as king. The author of 1 Chronicles summarized Saul’s reign this way: “Saul died for his unfaithfulness to the Lord because he did not keep the Lord’s word. He even consulted a medium for guidance . . . . So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1 Chr 10:13-14).
31:11-13 The people of Jabesh-gilead had been rescued from the Ammonites by Saul many years earlier (see 11:1-11), and here they showed their gratitude. Their brave men made a dangerous, all-night trip to recover the bodies of Saul and his sons from Beth-shan and dispose of them properly (31:11-13). The people of Jabesh buried their bones and observed seven days of fasting for Saul and his sons (31:13).
The grief they expressed in this fast was genuine. All Israel could rightly share in it. King Saul’s sin and rejection of the Lord’s will had brought destruction and shame on the whole kingdom. The nation had reached a low point that only God could lift it out of. As it turned out, he was prepared to do just that through another king, one who was a “man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:1).