The Bitter End

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1 Samuel 31:1-13 (Saul takes his life)

INTRODUCTION: Today is the last day in our message series on David and Saul. It is also the last day in our longer message series on the whole book of 1 Samuel. We have looked at the life of Samuel in the opening chapters (1-8), the rise and fall of Saul in the middle chapters (9-15), and then finally David and Saul together in these closing chapters (16-31).

And in these closing chapters we have really been tracing the rise of David and the fall of Saul with respect to the kingship in Israel. Saul disobeyed God, and as a result God took the kingdom away from Saul and gave it to David. Today as we come to the final chapter in the book, we also come to the final chapter in Saul’s life. (Read 1 Samuel 31:1-4 and pray)


Who will write your obituary when you die? More importantly, what will it say? We all want to end well, but we often work against it with the various choices we make along the way.

The lives of David and Saul illustrate a very important principle in life. Live well, die well. Live poorly, die poorly. Ending well or ending poorly is a direct result of the choices you make. In a sense you are writing your own obituary every day of your life.

Now this doesn’t mean as a believer that if you live well you will never suffer. It doesn’t mean that you won’t die of an illness or perhaps under difficult circumstances. What it does mean is, that whatever your circumstances, you will die well. You will be remembered well, and your life and death will bring glory and honor to Jesus Christ.

When God appointed Saul as king, God gave Saul everything he needed to succeed. But Saul consistently did things his way instead of God’s way. He bypassed God in his life, and he reaped the consequences of his decisions. In today’s passage we come to Saul’s bitter end.

Today’s chapter tells us about the final battle between Saul and the Philistines. Saul was called to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines (1 Samuel 9:16), and now he dies in battle against the very enemy he was supposed to subdue.

Saul’s death is the exact opposite of Paul’s words in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 4:7. When Paul comes to the end of his life, he can say with confidence: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (1 Timothy 4:7) Saul can’t say that. He has not fought the good fight, so he dies in a bad fight. He has not kept the faith, so he dies in dishonor. Live well, die well. Live poorly, die poorly.

Woody Allen once said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Well, none of us have that luxury, including Saul. Saul is there when he dies, and sadly he comes to a bitter end.

I. The death of Saul – tragic (1-6)

Saul’s life ends poorly with many tragic circumstances surrounding his death.

   A. The Philistines defeat Israel and kill Saul’s sons (1-3)

First, the Philistines defeat Israel and kill Saul’s sons. Look at 1 Samuel 31:1-3:

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. 3 The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. (1 Samuel 31:1-3)

And so, the Philistines defeat the Israelites. Many Israelites are killed in battle. Three of Saul’s own sons are killed, including Jonathan – heir to the throne and David’s friend. And then Saul himself is wounded by the Philistine archers. He is critically wounded, which means he is not going to survive this battle.

   B. Saul takes his own life (4-6)

But Saul’s death is even more tragic than that because Saul ends up taking his own life. Look at verses 4-6:

Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. 5 When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. 6 So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day. (1 Samuel 31:4-6)

Saul is critically wounded, and rather than face the enemy, he tells his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword. But just like David earlier, the armor-bearer refuses to take the life of God’s anointed. When the armor-bearer refuses, Saul falls on his own sword and takes his own life. When the armor-bearer sees that Saul is dead, he falls on his sword and dies with him. Tragedy everywhere!

When Saul foolishly went to the witch of Endor, God told Saul through Samuel that within twenty-four hours he and his sons would both be dead. Now, twenty-four hours later, God’s word is fulfilled, and Saul and his sons all lie dead on the battlefield.

Once again, notice the contrast between David and Saul. In the previous chapter David wins the battle against the Amalekites and rescues his family. Here Saul is defeated in battle and loses his family. Live well, die well. Live poorly, die poorly. Saul lived poorly, and he died tragically.

II. The dishonor of Saul – heartbreaking (7-10)

But Saul ends poorly not only because he dies in tragic circumstances. He also ends poorly because his life ends in dishonor. And if the death of Saul is tragic, the dishonor of Saul is heartbreaking.

   A. Fails to protect his people (7)

First, he fails to protect his people. Look at verse 7:

When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them. (1 Samuel 31:7)

Saul fails to protect the citizens under his care. When the citizens in the border towns see that Saul’s army is defeated and that Saul and his sons are dead, they abandon their homes and flee. They give up the territory without even a fight. The Philistines come in and occupy the towns, giving them a strong vantage point to further infiltrate Israel.

Saul’s main job as king was to protect the Israelites. He fails at his main charge, and so his life ends in dishonor.

   B. Desecration of the bodies (8-9)

Saul experiences further dishonor with the desecration of his body and those of his sons. Look at verses 8-9:

The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 They cut off his head and stripped off his armor… (1 Samuel 31:8-9)

The next day, when the Philistines find Saul and his sons among the dead, they desecrate the bodies. They cut off Saul’s head, and they strip him of his armor. Later in the chapter we learn that they also exposed the bodies of his sons.

This was a great dishonor in that culture, not to have a proper burial but to have your body desecrated and exposed. Saul had hoped to avoid dishonor at the hands of the enemy by taking his own life, but his life still ends in dishonor.

   C. Defamation of the one true God (9-10)

But Saul’s death not only results in the desecration of the bodies. It also results in the defamation of the one true God. Look at verses 9-10:

… and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. 10 They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan. (1 Samuel 31:9-10)

This is the worst dishonor of them all. Saul’s death becomes an occasion for the defamation of God. The Philistines use the occasion to exalt their idols and false gods over the God of Israel. They send messengers throughout the land proclaiming victory in the temples of their idols. 1 Chronicles 10:10 tells us they put Saul’s head in the temple of Dagon and his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths. Finally, they hang Saul’s body along with the bodies of his sons off the wall of Beth Shan for all to see.

What is the message and the meaning behind all these actions? The Philistine are saying, “Our idols won! Our idols defeated the God of Israel!” The Philistines glorify their idols, and they dishonor and defame the one true God in the process.

Now you and I know the Philistine idols didn’t defeat God. Saul lost because God was judging Saul. But to the whole world it looked like the Philistine idols were stronger than God. And that is a shame in the truest sense of the word.

We see this even today in our world. The world rejoices in the fall of a believer. When a believer publicly falls, the world laughs at God and mocks the Christian faith. This is the greatest dishonor possible. May we always fear dishonoring the name of our Lord more than any personal dishonor we ourselves may experience.

III. The people of Jabesh Gilead – inspiring (11-13)

Saul’s death is tragic. Saul’s dishonor is heartbreaking. But fortunately, this terribly sad story ends on a somewhat better note. We end the story not with the death and dishonor of Saul, but with the actions of the people of Jabesh Gilead, actions which are truly inspiring.

   A. Acted valiantly (1 Samuel 31:11-13)

First, we see that the people of Jabesh Gilead acted valiantly. Look at verses 11-13:

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31:11-13)

When the people of Jabesh hear what the Philistines did to Saul, they travel through the night, and they recover his body along with his sons. This was a difficult journey fraught with danger. Beth Shan was about fifteen miles away. They had to cross the Jordan River by night. They had to sneak across enemy territory to reach Beth Shan. Then they had to get the bodies down from the wall without alerting any of the guards. And then they still had to make their way all the way back to Jabesh, this time along with the bodies.

When they return to Jabesh, they burn the desecrated bodies so that they can give Saul and his sons a proper burial. They bury the bones under a tamarisk tree, and they fast for seven days out of respect for Saul and his sons.

   B. Repaid a debt (1 Samuel 11:1-11)

Now you might wonder why the people of Jabesh would do all this for a king who has lived and died so dishonorably. Well, in doing this they are actually repaying a debt. Saul had rescued them from the enemy when he first became king, before he turned away from the Lord.

If you go all the way back to 1 Samuel 11, we find the story of Saul rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites. It was Saul’s first official act as king, and as a result Saul consolidated all the people of Israel around him. He also earned the loyalty and devotion of the people of Jabesh Gilead for life.

Saul began his rule as king by rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead. Saul’s story now ends with the people of Jabesh Gilead rescuing him. Live well, die well. Saul started well, and his good actions now follow him even after his dishonorable death. The people of Jabesh Gilead retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons at great risk to themselves because they were repaying a debt.

   C. Shown favor for their kindness and loyalty (2 Samuel 2:4-6, 21:12-14)

David becomes king shortly after this, and when David learns what the people of Jabesh Gilead did for Saul, David shows them favor for their kindness and loyalty. Peeking ahead now to the book of 2 Samuel, we read in 2 Samuel 2:4-6:

When David was told that it was the men of Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul, 5 he sent messengers to the men of Jabesh Gilead to say to them, “The Lord bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. 6 May the Lord now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favor because you have done this.” (2 Samuel 2:4-6)

Later on, David will take the bones of Saul and Jonathan from Jabesh Gilead and bring them back to Bethlehem, where they will be buried in the tomb of Saul’s father, an honorable burial at last. (2 Samuel 21:12-14) But this was only possible because of the valiant actions of the people of Jabesh Gilead earlier.

CONCLUSION: I would like to close out this message and the whole book of 1 Samuel with three applications.

First of all, the importance of your choices. Your choices are important. Every day you are either choosing life or death. When you choose God and God’s way you are choosing life. When you choose sin or self over God, you are choosing the way of death. Your choices are important.

Secondly, the consequences of your choices. Your choices have consequences. We reap what we sow. Every life is made up of years, which are made up of months, which are made up of days, which are made up of hours, which are made up of choices. Each choice may seem small at the time, but those thousands of choices you make add up to your life, and they help determine whether you will end well or end poorly, whether your life will bring honor to God or dishonor.

And then finally, the necessity of the Holy Spirit. You can sum up the rise and fall of Saul and the rise of David as king in just three verses from the whole book of 1 Samuel:

1 Samuel 11:6: “When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power.” (1 Samuel 11:6)

1 Samuel 16:13: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” (1 Samuel 16:13)

1 Samuel 16:14: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” (1 Samuel 16:14)

In each case the rise or fall of David and Saul was occasioned by the coming or departing of the Spirit of God. All this shows how much we need the Holy Spirit in our lives. You can’t live a life that is pleasing to God on your own. You need the Holy Spirit to live a life that brings glory and honor to God.

The book of 1 Samuel ends on a low note but anticipates a high note – the crowning of David as king in the book of 2 Samuel. Remember, we have seen throughout 1 Samuel how David prefigures Christ, how he foreshadows Christ who is coming. 1 Samuel ends anticipating David who will be crowned as king. In the same way the whole Old Testament anticipates the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem, and the whole present age anticipates the coming of Jesus at the end of time.

Ending well or ending poorly is a direct result of the choices you make in life. And the most important choice you can make is to trust Jesus Christ as your Savior. Everything else hinges on that one choice. Your death will be either a bitter end or a beautiful beginning. It all depends on whether you are trusting Christ as your Savior.

Every day you are writing the ending to your story. How do you want your story to end? Saul lived a foolish life, and he died a tragic death. But that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. God has given you everything you need in Christ to succeed. Go forth to live well and die well. Go forth to live for Christ.

© Ray Fowler

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