1 Samuel 31 Commentary: The Fall of Saul and His Sons

1 Samuel 31 marks the conclusion of the First Book of Samuel, a pivotal chapter in the narrative of ancient Israel’s history and monarchy. It details the dramatic and tragic end of King Saul, Israel’s first monarch, and his sons, including Jonathan, during the Battle of Mount Gilboa.

This chapter not only narrates the stark realities of war and its aftermath but also sets a crucial stage for the transition of power to David, highlighting the complexities of leadership and divine providence.

1 Samuel 31:1-6, The Death of Saul and His Sons in Battle

The final chapter of 1 Samuel concludes the tragic story of King Saul and describes the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, resulting in a devastating defeat for Israel.

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.

1 Samuel 31:1-2, ESV

In these verses, we see the grim reality of warfare in ancient times.

The Philistines, known for their military prowess, overpower the Israelite forces. The focus quickly shifts to the personal tragedy of Saul’s family, particularly the death of his sons. This detail signifies not just a personal loss for Saul but also a political and dynastic crisis for Israel.

The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.

1 Samuel 31:3-4, ESV

Saul’s injury and subsequent suicide are pivotal moments. His decision to take his own life rather than be captured reflects his desire to avoid humiliation and possible torture at the hands of the Philistines. This act, while controversial, is often seen as a tragic attempt to maintain some dignity amidst defeat.

The deaths of Saul and his sons mark a significant turning point in Israelite history.

Saul’s death symbolizes the end of his troubled reign and paves the way for David’s ascension to the throne. The narrative here is somber, reflecting on the consequences of Saul’s disobedience to God, as previously detailed in the book.

Reflections on the Deaths of Saul and Jonathan

Why was Jonathan killed in the Bible? Jonathan was killed during the Battle of Mount Gilboa, where he fought alongside his father Saul against the Philistines.

Did Saul put Jonathan to death? Saul did not put Jonathan to death; Jonathan died in battle against the Philistines. However, Saul’s previous disobedience to God set in motion the tragic downfall of his house, indirectly leading to the battle where Jonathan, alongside Saul, met their demise at the hands of the Philistines.

What are the weaknesses of Jonathan in the Bible? The Bible does not explicitly highlight Jonathan’s weaknesses, instead portraying him as a loyal son and friend, particularly in his relationship with David.

Why did Saul die? Saul died by taking his own life during the Battle of Mount Gilboa, after being critically wounded to avoid capture by the Philistines.

What did David do when Saul and Jonathan died? Upon learning of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, David mourned deeply, composing a lamentation in their honor, which is recorded in the Book of Second Samuel.

What did David say about Jonathan when he died? David expressed profound grief and admiration for Jonathan when he died, referring to him as “very dear to me” and lamenting that “your love to me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”

1 Samuel 31:7-10, The Philistines’ Victory and Desecration of Saul’s Body

Following the death of Saul and his sons, the Philistines claim victory and desecrate the bodies of the fallen.

And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them.

The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.

1 Samuel 31:7-8, ESV

These verses depict the aftermath of the battle, emphasizing the extent of the Philistine victory.

The reaction of the Israelites, abandoning their cities and fleeing, illustrates the impact of this defeat on the morale and stability of the nation.

So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

1 Samuel 31:9-10, ESV

The Philistines’ treatment of Saul’s body is brutal and humiliating. Displaying his armor in a temple and fastening his body to a wall are acts of triumph and mockery. This not only serves as a physical display of their victory but also as a psychological tactic to intimidate and demoralize the Israelites.

The desecration of Saul’s body also has religious implications.

By placing his armor in the temple of their gods, the Philistines imply the superiority of their deities over the God of Israel. This act of disrespect towards the fallen king and, by extension, towards Israel’s God, sets the stage for future conflicts between the two nations.

Contemporary Philistines

Who are the Philistines today? The Philistines of the Bible are an ancient people, primarily known as the adversaries of the Israelites; their modern descendants are not clearly identified as they were largely assimilated into conquering cultures and thus went extinct.

1 Samuel 31:11-13, The Men of Jabesh-Gilead Recover and Bury Saul’s Body

In contrast to the Philistine’s actions, the final verses of the chapter highlight the bravery and loyalty of the men of Jabesh-Gilead.

But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there.

1 Samuel 31:11-12, ESV

The men of Jabesh-Gilead show a deep sense of loyalty and gratitude towards Saul. This is likely due to Saul’s earlier rescue of Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites, as recorded in 1 Samuel 11.

Their bold move to retrieve the bodies and give them a proper burial demonstrates respect and honor for Saul and his sons, countering the Philistine’s disrespect.

And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.

1 Samuel 31:13, ESV

Their burial rites, including burning the bodies and burying the bones, were not typical in ancient Israel.

This variation in funeral customs could be a practical response to the condition of the bodies or a regional difference in burial practices. Their actions symbolize a desire to restore dignity to Saul and his sons in death, despite their tragic end.

This respectful burial also provides a moment of closure for Saul’s reign, allowing the narrative to transition to the era of King David.

What is the commentary of 1 Samuel 31:13? The commentary of 1 Samuel 31:13 highlights the respectful actions of the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who bravely retrieved and properly buried the bodies of Saul and his sons, in contrast to the Philistines’ desecration.