The Book of Samuel was not originally tended as a single-volume history, but has been split into the two parts as we have them. The close of “1 Samuel” comes here at Saul’s death, and this juncture helps us to appreciate how massive this tragedy is. Three leaders have served, one has already died, and one dies here, preparing the way for the exploits of the third, David, to fill the second book. But it wasn’t supposed to end like this. Saul was a man full of promise, and with the Lord’s anointing. He ends his own life, and his decapitated corpse is strung up on a Philistine city wall.
This battle is the one David and his men were excused from fighting in. First, the Philistines kill Saul’s sons. Among them is obviously Jonathan, the son of such courage and integrity, the picture of all that his father should have been, but failed to be. How David would grieve when he heard that news. Next, it is Saul himself who is struck down (vv.1-4). But the wounds aren’t enough to kill him, and, fearing that the Philistines will later come for him, to finish him off and then violate his body, he orders his armour bearer to do it (v.4). The man’s courage fails, but Saul manages to do the deed himself.
In one day, a nation collapses, its dynasty destroyed, and its towns overrun (v.7). The Philistines glory in degrading Saul’s corpse, and showing the supremacy of their gods over Saul, before they expose his body for all to see (vv.8-11). For them, this must be the end of Israel.
It does read as if it is the end. There is one ray of kindness. As a nation reels, one tribe hasn’t forgotten the reign of Saul, at least, as it began in happier days. The men of Jabesh Gilead feel a debt of honour to their dead King from the days when he began his reign by rescuing their city (1 Samuel 11). They want to honour him by giving him a proper burial (vv.11-14).
Saul is dead, and it is right to grieve him. It is right to be perplexed, disturbed, even, at God’s mysterious ways. If you say you can understand God’s raising up of Saul, and then rejection of Him, then you must know that you haven’t. All we can say is, “it has pleased the Lord”. Our faith deals with mystery in the only way it can, with awe-filled worship. Aboveall, we look to the One in Whom all of God’s plans find their glorious fulfilment: our Saviour allowed Himself to be degraded by His enemies, and then His body was strung up on a cross, for brave followers later to bury with honour. God will never remove His favour from Him, nor from any who take refuge in Him.