31 The Death of Saul

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“And, when his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armour-bearer and all his men, that same day together.”-I SAM. xxxi. 5, 6.

LIFE is full of contrasts. Youth and age, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, strength and weakness, poverty and riches, success and defeat, alternate before us with strange vicissitude. But when we would contemplate this wonderful variety in human affairs in its most remarkable conditions, we need only turn to meditate upon the career of Saul. How wonderful was the elevation of his youth! Raised at Mizpeh from the farm to the throne; the whole multitude which thronged the plain crying out, God save the King. Thenceforward victory waited on his banners. He overthrew the Ammonites, he overthrew the Philistines in many a hard fought field; and his kingdom seemed firmly established. But see him in the history before us, his army slain or scattered, his sons fallen one after another, flying before the swiftly pursuing archers, sorely wounded, bleeding, despairing, asking for death from a friendly hand as a favour. What can be more sad! Once, so high, and now so low! Yet such is the experience of life. Such is the frailty of human hopes. By such contrasts are we taught that our abiding place is not here; that our true and stable treasures are not position, not treasures, and not fame, but goodness, wisdom, faith, hope, virtue, spiritual treasures all derived from heaven, all looking to and leading to our everlasting home. Change is the law of this lower world. Health is to us uncertain, riches are often fleeting and temporary. “There’s nothing true but heaven.” “Labour not for the meat that perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life.” “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.” “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Of things that happen in time, the only certainty is death. That is sure to come in sunshine or in storm, and hence the supreme wsdom, the imperative duty of living daily for heaven, so that in the hour of nature’s dissolution death may be to us the crown of life. We then should feel as described by Dr. Young:

“Death wounds to cure: we fall, we rise, we reign;
Spring from our fetters; fasten on the skies
Where blooming Eden withers in our sight
Death gives us more than was in Eden lost’:
The king of terrors is the Prince of Peace.
When shall I die to vanity, pain, death?
When shall I die? When shall I live for ever?

Saul is not presented in Scripture as a bad man in his ordinary life. He is rather described as in general a good man with two grievous drawbacks—he was imperfectly obedient to God, and he was envious towards David. In David’s lamentation over the destruction of the royal house by the slaughter on Mount Giilboa we read, “Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.” Saul was brave, simple, self-denying, virtuous in social life up to the Israelitish standard of virtue. He was no tyrant, and had the confidence of his people to the end. He was for the greater part of his reign strict in rendering and maintaining obedience to the Divine Law. From the absence of anything to the contrary, and from the deep attachment of a large portion of Israel to his house, though only very feebly represented, we may conclude that he was acknowledged and loved as a good father and a good king. His sons were true to him to the last, even to death! and for seven years and six months, though David was anointed king over Judah in Hebron, Israel clung to the house of Saul, and only at the end of that time did David become king over the whole land.

These observations are, however, not only true in relation to Saul, but they suggest reflections of great importance to us all. We are apt roughly to class mankind into good and bad. We often forget that characters are blended of varied materials in every kind of proportion. The good are seldom so good as to have no fault of any kind; the bad are seldom so bad as to have no redeeming quality. Besides, there is variety in good as there is variety in trees. All trees are not olives, or vines, or figs, though the fruits of all these are good, some for one valuable quality, and some for another. Of bad trees all are not bad alike; some bear one kind of poisonous juice or mischievous thorn, and some another. So is it with men. And from this circumstance a frequent cause of self-deception is what a man overlooks a very grievous fault in himself, because it is not the fault which is manifest in a notorious neighbour or a troublesome acquaintance.

All men are prone to evil, but all are not prone to the same evils. John seems to have had no propensity to push himself forward before his Lord, which was the weakness of Peter; neither of them seemed to have been troubled with avarice which was the besetting sin of Judas. The Pharisee in the temple gave thanks to God that he was not as other men not even as the publican; yet it was manifest he was self-righteous, sanctimonious and boastful.

A covetous man will give himself credit that no one can charge him with disorderly habits, of which he only grudges the expense. A prodigal will often glorify himself because he is not a miser. A steady man of business will deem himself faultless, or not seriously wrong, although a bitter temper may be the secret curse of home. Thousands will give themselves credit for not giving way to drunkenness, to which they have little proneness and therefore slight temptation, who are nevertheless, in other respects, grievously forgetful of the Lord and grievously unjust, unkind, and offensive to their fellow-men. We are faithful to our Heavenly Father, not in proportion to the smoothness of our demeanour as to those sins to which we have slight tendencies, and are never deeply tried, but in proportion to our resistance to evils when our natural inclinations are strong, and our trials severe. The true Christian is one who places himself under the light of heaven, not that he may notice the defects of others, but that he may see his own. He gives himself no quarter, but condemns his shortcomings and his evils, and prays to the Lord constantly for help against them, He treads upon the lion and the asp, the young lion and the dragon in himself He is filled with a humble fear of himself, arid always acts in the spirit of the words:

“Thou tread’st upon deceitful ground·
Perils and snares beset thee round:
Beware of all I guard every part !
But most the traitor in thy heart !”

He will not repeat the words, “Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners,” and then be surprised and indignant if anyone charges him with a fruit. He knows he has sins; he seeks honestly to see them In the light of truth, and to struggle against them at all times, but especially when he is strongly tempted to commit them, Then by the help of the Lord Jesus, the Divine Saviour, he obtains victories, and finally can bless his Divine Helper that the sinful propensity has been succeeded by a loathing of what he used to love, by strength where he was weak; he has fought again and again the good fight, and the Lord has given unto him “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

How different would it have been with Saul if he had thus been faithful. If he had simply obeyed the Lord’s command by the mouth of Samuel and rooted out the Amalekites, instead of picking and choosing, and thinking it would be as well to spare the king, he would never have fallen from his crown and dignity, and sunk faint and weary on the field of Gilboa, to receive the last thrust from the hands of an Amalckite. “Lord Jesus, what wouldst thou have me to do? ” is the language of faithful obedience, and when we see the right, with loving earnestness we should obey. “What doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?” Saul failed from a vacillating, hesitating, imperfect obedience. The real Christian spirit is to say from love and faith with the apostle Paul, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God.” Had Saul done this, heaven would not have been closed against him, he would not have had to fly before his enemies and sunk down to die, while Philistia triumphed over him, and the shield of the mighty was vilely cast away.

Saul’s other fault, envy, was also a very grievous one. He was jealous of David, even when the young hero had freed the whole army from the boastful wrath of the giant of Philistia. In the triumphal procession the women played their tabrets and sang, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands,” which was perfectly true; for although Saul had watched over and preserved the host, yet had David really been blest by Divine Providence to achieve the victory. But “Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him, and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands; and what can he have more but the kingdom? And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.” Although David had conferred the greatest possible benefit upon both king and kingdom, and in every charge committed to him behaved justly, wisely, and modestly, yet the envy of Saul was busy, first secretly contriving against his life, and afterwards openly assailing him and hunting him over the land as if he were a wild beast, instead of being his own son-in-law, and the country’s best and most capable friend.

Such is the character of envy. It tortures its possessor with gall, distilled drop by drop, and corroding with a constant pain all that is valuable in the soul. It is ever maligning the object of its hate. It sees everything from malice. When others are rejoicing, it is gnawing itself with anguish. It is the opposite of that charity which envieth not, and is not puffed up. It is a mental jaundice, which discolours all it looks upon, and forms in the breast of its possessor a pandemonium in which self-torture and the desire to torture others are incessantly at work.

How wonderful it is that, for such a thing as this, a man will often, as Saul did, forfeit his peace, his well-being, even his life precisely as, in ancient times, all was offered up to Moloch. Yet so it is. Lord, save us from this horrid idol, and give us that holy love derived from love to Thee, which will animate us always with the desire to bless others, which will even return good for evil, and rejoice over all the gifts Thou bestowest on all Thy children, as much as if they were bestowed on us delighting in the joy around, and saying, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.” Give us grace, Lord Jesus, to think less and less of ourselves, and feel that whatever good we have or whatever we are, it is by Thy mercy, and not by our merit. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Having considered the individual character of Saul, and such reflections as appeared to arise out of that consideration, let us now turn to his representative character. We need not dwell upon the fact that, in preparing our souls for heaven, we have all to become kings and priests (Rev. 1. 6). They who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by One, Jesus Christ (Rom. v. 17). The little kingdom of the soul has to be brought into order and governed by the spirit of religion derived from the Word of God. But religion at first is only external with us, it is the kingdom of Saul. It is a great advance upon the loose condition in which no virtuous principle governs us, but it has serious defects. These defects are represented by the failings of Saul. We are earnest, it may be, but there is much of self mixed up with our religion while it is in this external state. The disciples of the Lord before the day of Pentecost were just of this character: they were modified, but they were not really converted. Hence, what disputings they had about who should be the greatest; how often their faith failed, and how completely they were disappointed when the Saviour’s crucifixion extinguished all hope of a grand earthly kingdom in which they would be lords and chiefs. If it were not for the goodness of the Most High condescending to take us at first just as we are, it would be impossible for any man to be saved at all. By nature, man is a mass of evil, with seeds of good, it is true, but with evil so organized in his spiritual body that in Scripture it is often called a body of sin, a body of death, a vile body. Yet the Lord takes a man as he is, allows him to come influenced by hope of reward and fear of everlasting punishment, and makes him one of his hired servants. Far better it is, indeed, for a man to be a hired servant of the Best of beings, than a bond-slave of hell. The hired servants of our Heavenly Father have bread enough ang to spare. Yet this is the lowest state of religion-it is the Saul-state. It has its usefulness for a time, and is indispensable for the early period of religious life; but as the kingdom of the Lord advances in the soul, the David-state must come, and Saul must die.

The Jewish religion at its best was represented by Saul; it was a religion of the letter and of reward. The Christian religion is properly a religion of the spirit, in which the Lord seeks for men to worship Him in spirit and in truth, not for reward but for purity and truth. The LOVE OF THE TRUTH is the proper Christian motive. The apostle complains of some because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved (2 Thess. ii. 10). As the love of truth leads the soul to enter more deeply into angelic graces, truths become loved for their own sakes; they are seen and felt to be pearls of great price. The spirit and life of the Word are now the treasures which are sought for their own sakes. Reward as a motive becomes odious, the Lord Himself is followed as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the possession of internal treasures the all sufficient reward. Now it is this revolution of state in the soul which is meant by the death of Saul, and the advent of David to the throne. Jesus as seen outwardly, the rewarder, gives place to Jesus as seen inwardly, the enlightener, the imparter of spiritual gifts, the author and bestower of a present heaven. To represent this entire change in the soul, Saul fell down and died at Mount Gilboa, for the name Gilboa signifies the revolution of inquiry. In the Saul-state, there is little inquiry, the soul is satisfied with little; but in the David-state, the soul hungers and thirsts after righteousness, and first learns what it is to be filled. That Saul was slain by the Philistines will not be difficult to understand when we bear in mind that the Philistines represent such as are in some knowledge of religion, and believe it to be enough to depend upon faith in the few things they know, and which they declare to be sufficient for salvation. The Philistines are called uncircumcised, because they represent those whose heads are somewhat engaged about heavenly things, but who declare that the heart cannot he purified, and that it is not necessary to try, there is a better way.

The Philistines were very quarrelsome, they were ever attacking. Those of the true Philistine class now are very disputatious, very zealous, very bitter, and very selfish. There is an outside of religion, but the heart and life receive very secondary attention, and the spirit of charity is almost entirely absent. The Philistines make Saul die, because they shew that essentially his state is the same as theirs. The external Christian, though he acknowledges he ought to obey the Lord Jesus in all things, is so weak, and so often fails, that his state and the Philistine state are very nearly alike, with the exception that the Philistine does not profess to care for charity and a good life as essentials of salvation, and the true Israelite in heart does. The attack of the Philistines represented a severe temptation in the Christian soul, in which its defects are clearly and strongly manifested. The bitter thoughts which pain and distress the mind in such a condition of anguish are the arrows which hit Saul and sorely wounded him.

The death of Saul and his three sons represents a perception of the inadequate character of the whole state. A feeling of condemnation presses with agony before us; we condemn ourselves, we reject ourselves; our whole state, our faith, our love, our obedience, seem little better than self in a disguise. We see the Word condemns such a state as ours has been. This is like taking the sword and falling upon it. We border on despair, the anguish of the soul is awful. We pour out our sorrow, we are in darkness and see no light. We cry, Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified; for the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead.

When the surging of temptation is at its height, and the anguish so bitter, the spirit dies as it were in the soul, it seems as if all its efforts had been without any saving efficacy. The Philistines triumph and deride: “This is the man who declared we just keep God’s commandments; and see what it has all come to! See how he has fallen; see how hopeless he is, how prostrate, how sunk!” They cut off Saul’s head; that is, they declared there was neither intelligence, sense, nor power in such a state. The severe depression in which he was, shewed the utter fallacy of all effort to walk according to God’s holy will. It was published in the house of their idols; that is, it was exultingly proclaimed to be a confirmation of their fallacies, a triumph for their delusions, as the Pharisees thought when the Saviour was crucified. But the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and He delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand. Jesus was crucified, but He rose glorified. Saul died, but David took his place. External religion expires; but internal religion rises, conquers the Philistines completely, and reigns. They put Saul’s armour in the temple of Ashtaroth, the moon-goddess, and fastened his body to the wall of Bethshau. Bethshan was about six miles from Gilboa, and its name signifies the house of the tooth, or the sharp rock. The significance of this bestowal of Saul’s armour and his body, it is not difficult to perceive. When a good man is dejected in temptation the Philistines regard it as a tribute to their idol of faith alone, the moon-goddess. The moon is the symbol of faith, and when made an idol it represents faith alone, faith not with love and good works, but a substitute for them.

The men of Jabesh-Gilead came and took away the bodies, and buried them respectfully under a tree. They remembered how Saul had saved them in his early days (I Sam. xi.). Jabesh Gilead was outside the Jordan, a part of Manasseh. The name signifies the mourners of the covenant, and they represent such as know and feel the immense difference between those who live and labour for heaven, though they stumble, and those who Blake it a dogma that struggling with sins has no saving efficacy at all. These mourn, but they are comforted. They mournfully bury Saul, then hopefully turn to David. They rise above the letter of religion, and pass now for ever to its spirit and its life.

Author: Jonathan Bayley— The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)