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31 Meanwhile the Philistine and Israelite armies had clashed. The men of Israel ran away, but many of them were killed on the heights of Gilboa. The Philistines even followed Saul and his sons and closed in on them; there they killed his sons, Jonathan (the beloved friend of David), Abinadab, and Malchi-shua.

Notice that David does not participate in the battle against his own people, and that even while he lives among the Philistines hiding from Saul, he doesn’t serve them. This expedition against the raiding Amalekites offers a powerful explanation both for why David doesn’t fight for the Philistine king and why he doesn’t fight to preserve the armies of Israel. Because David is far away with his own desperate battles to fight, no shame falls on him for any oaths he might have broken.

The battle closed in around Saul, and he was shot with arrows and badly wounded.

Saul (to his armor-bearer): Please take out your sword and thrust it through me. Don’t let these uncircumcised dogs come and put their swords and spears into me for their sport.

But his armor-bearer was afraid and would not do it. Saul drew his own sword and fell upon it. When the armor-bearer saw this, he also drew his sword and fell upon it and died. So Saul, his three sons, his armor-bearer, and all his men died together on the same day.

That looks like the end of the story, but it isn’t. It is a tragedy, though a necessary one for Israel. At the beginning of his reign, Saul gathers a huge army to fight the Ammonites, who threaten to blind the men of Jabesh-gilead. Many years later, the people of the country hear what has happened. They raise an army of their own, march all night into the Philistine town of Beth-shan, and without regard to the danger, take down the bodies and return to their own country to give Saul and his family a decent and respectful burial.

Saul is many things—a brute, a coward, a prince, a warrior, a faithful follower, a faithless wallower—and now he is dead. Some might celebrate; others mourn him. The king the people asked for has been dethroned, and the kingdom lies open to invasion, but God’s plan is still operating. In the Second Book of Samuel, it is evident this is part of a larger order. The people’s king has been defeated, but God’s king is on his way.

The deaths of Saul and his sons conclude the First Book of Samuel. God’s anointed dies, and the armies of Israel are defeated. Some commentators, even though they may condemn suicide, do not fault Saul for falling on his own sword. Remembering how the Philistines blinded and tormented the hero and judge Samson, Saul knows his fate is torture and abuse. Not only does he not want to suffer that as a man, but also as God’s anointed king, he does not want these “uncircumcised dogs”—that is, followers of other gods—to claim such an advantage over the Lord. So he falls on his sword, and the Philistines, prevented from their torture, behead Saul’s body, strip him, and exhibit his and his sons’ corpses in public.

When the people of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and even those beyond the Jordan River, learned that the Israelite army had been defeated and heard that Saul and his sons were dead, they left their cities and fled. Then the Philistines came and lived in them.

The next day, as the Philistine army was looting the bodies of the fallen Israelites, they found Saul and his three sons dead on the heights of Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head, stripped his body of his weapons, and sent messengers with the good news to the temples and to the people throughout Philistia. 10 They put Saul’s armor in the temple of Astarte and nailed his body to the wall at Beth-shan.

11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard about this indignity done to Saul by the Philistines, 12 the brave men among them rose up and traveled through the night. When they arrived, they took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall at Beth-shan. They returned to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them in Jabesh beneath the tamarisk tree, like the one where Saul had held court in Gibeah, and for seven days they fasted and mourned.

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