Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament1 SAMUEL 31
THE DEATH OF SAUL AND HIS SONS ON MOUNT GILBOA
Now the Philistines fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa. And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers overtook him; and he was greatly distressed by reason of the archers. Then said Saul to his armorbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armorbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell upon it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he likewise fell upon his sword, and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armorbearer, and all his men, that same day together. And when the men of Israel that were on the other side of the valley, and they that were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities, and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.
This paragraph records the near destruction of Israel. The reign of Saul was here terminated in bloody disaster; and many of the Israelites fled for the dens and caves of the Judean hills, leaving their cities to the tender mercies of the Philistines.
All the men of Israel
(1 Samuel 31:1). Significantly, not `all the men of Israel' were slain. These words refer to the particular detachment of Abner's army which, along with Saul and his sons, was surrounded on Mount Gilboa and annihilated. A thing like this could have happened only because Saul's day of grace had expired, and God fulfilled what he had said through his prophet Samuel, that the Lord had rejected him from being king over Israel.
Now the Philistines fought against Israel
(1 Samuel 31:1). Payne, like most modern scholars saw this battle as coming immediately after 1 Sam. 29:11,F1 following, as so many do, the alleged prophecy of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:19) to the effect that Saul and his sons would die the next day. (See our comment on this in 1 Sam. 28.) There is a very real possibility that the opinion of Methodius is correct, that the prophecy was a fraudulent imposition upon Saul by the witch, and that the `prophecy itself' was not fulfilled.
H. P. Smith's claim that there are two contradictory Biblical accounts of Saul's death, the one here, and the one in 2 Sam. 1:6-10,F2 is incorrect, being only an example of another radical scholar's willingness to believe an Amalekite rather than the inspired record. One must be naive indeed to accept the word of that self-seeking Amalekite who came to David with his tale regarding Saul's death, as anything but a lie. David himself considered it a lie and put the prevaricator to death.
The armor-bearer would not; for he feared greatly
(1 Samuel 31:4). The fear of the armor-bearer to thrust Saul through with his sword was most likely due to the great respect and awe in which all Israelites viewed The Lord's Anointed. That was the reason that David himself refused to kill Saul on two different occasions.
Saul took his own sword, and fell upon it. his armor-bearer ... also fell upon his sword, and died with him
(1 Samuel 31:4-5). Here we have two of the total of only five suicides recorded in the entire Bible. The other three are those of Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5).
Thus Saul died, and his three sons
(1 Samuel 31:6). Jonathan exhibited a true loyalty to his father, despite the fact of Saul's condemning him to death on one occasion (1 Samuel 14:36-43), casting his spear at him on another (1 Samuel 20:33), and his refusing utterly to listen to Jonathan with regard to the innocence of David. Willis referred to this as, a moving example of loyalty.F3 Jonathan died fighting by his father's side, perhaps even trying to save his life as the enemy closed in upon them.
And those beyond the Jordan
(1 Samuel 31:7). Cook pointed out that these words usually mean east of the Jordan, but not in this particular passage,F4 at the same time questioning the integrity of the text. Willis also questioned the accuracy of the rendition here, even though it is followed by the KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV and GNB. The NEB renders the passage, in the district of the Jordan, which Willis cited as preferable, because, Clearly the Philistines did not cross the Jordan to the east and occupy territory there,F5 since (as the text indicates) Jabesh-gilead, on the east of Jordan, some ten miles east of Bethshan (on the west side and which was occupied by the Philistines), remained under Israelite control as proved by the citizens of that place rescuing the bodies of Saul and his sons from the Philistines at Bethshan.
THE GRUESOME AFTERMATH OF ISRAEL'S DEFEAT
And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in mount Gilboa. And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armor, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the tidings unto the house of their idols, and to the people. And they put his armor in the house of the Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard concerning him that which 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 burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
This brave and dangerous action of the men of Jabesh-gilead is another of those inspiring examples of "gratitude and fidelity" mentioned by Willis. It will be remembered that at the beginning of Saul's reign (1 Samuel 11:1-11), he had delivered the Jabesh-gileadites from the insulting intention of the Ammonites to make slaves of all of them and also to put out their right eyes.
On the morrow, when they came to strip the slain
(1 Samuel 31:8). Some of the gruesome practices of ancient warfare appear in this paragraph. Such things as stripping the clothes and the armor from the dead, cutting off the heads of prominent enemies, or their leaders, making public displays of such trophies, depositing such things as armor in the temples of their idols, etc. -- all such things were customary in ancient times. Even David did a number of these things with the body and the armor of Goliath.
"1 Chr. 10:10 says that the Philistines fastened Saul's head to the temple of Dagon; but this was probably the one in Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-5), because Samson wrecked the one at Gaza (Judges 16:27,30)."F6
They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth
(1 Samuel 31:10). This was doubtless the famous temple of Venus in Askelon mentioned by Herodotus as the most ancient of all her temples, hence, the special mention of Askelon (2 Samuel 1:20).F7 We should not be surprised if other Scriptures mention other places where some of these trophies might have been on public display, just as was the case with the head of Goliath. The truth is that the same grisly trophy might have been displayed in a number of different places. See 2 Sam. 31:12-14.
They came to Jabesh and burnt them (the bodies of Saul and his sons) there
(1 Samuel 31:12). Cremation was very unusual, if not actually forbidden, among the Jews. God pronounced a severe judgment against Moab, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom (Amos 2:1). The difference here is that the bones of Saul and his sons were not burned. Perhaps they burned the bodies to prevent any further display of them by the Philistines, or perhaps because the natural decomposition of them had reached a state that made it necessary so to do.
They took them (the bones) and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh
(1 Samuel 31:13). Canon Cook's statement that this tree was standing when this narrative was written,F8 if true, evidently rests upon some information which does not seem to appear in the text.
Under the tamarisk tree
(1 Samuel 31:13). It was under another tamarisk tree that Saul ordered the slaughter of the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 22:6); and in this passage we read that his bones were buried under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh. What a strange irony is this! Wickedness always finds its appropriate retribution.
Footnotes for 1 Samuel 31
1: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 302.
2: International Critical Commentary, Samuel 251.
3: John T. Willis, p. 277.
4: Albert Barnes, Samuel, p. 70.
5: John T. Willis, p. 279.
7: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 71.