A tragic end

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

1 Samuel 31

I like “happily ever after” stories

I am a person that will always choose to watch a movie or to read a story with a happy ending over one with tragic ending. I like the fairly-tale kind of story that ends with the “And they all lived happily ever after” kind of ending.  I don’t like tragedies. But, not all stories are “happily ever after” kind of stories. Some stories end on a more sombre note. Some great stories of history are tragedies. Things don’t end up working out for the better. Sometimes the story just tells the downfall of the main character who doesn’t overcome the obstacles before them. Things don’t work out for them and they even contribute to their own ruin and destruction. Sometimes things don’t end up happy.

Saul’s story isn’t a happily ever after story

Today we come to the last chapter in 1 Samuel. As you would have noticed, chapter 31 of 1 Samuel isn’t “a fairy-tale ending”. It’s isn’t “a happily ever after kind of ending”. It is much more of a tragedy for it recounts the sad tale of and demise of the reign of the first king of Israel. Today we want to spend some time looking at the tragic conclusion of the reign of King Saul. We then want to spend some time reviewing his story to understand how it all ended so bad way so that we might learn from it.

A tragic end.

Saul’s story is a tragedy. It definitely doesn’t end “happily ever after”. In what is a fairly short chapter the end of Saul’s life and reign is recounted in telling sad story of defeat and death. Israel is defeated and everyone ends up dead and everything goes back to the way it was before Saul came into the story.


The end of Saul’s story is about defeat. The Israelites had been fighting against their neighbours for a long time. They were surrounded by people who were constantly fighting with them for dominance. Saul had come into the story because the Israelites because they wanted to be like those who they were fighting against who seemed to be wining because they had powerful kings to lead them into battle. The Israelites had forgotten that it was the Lord that they depended on and mistakenly thought that a king would be the answer to their troubles. And despite the prophet Samuel’s objections, God gave them the sort of king that they wanted.

Saul exactly fitted the bill. He was the sort of king that the people had asked for. He was regarded an impressive young man who was without equal among the Israelites. He was at least a head taller than anyone else in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2). He looked like the sort of guy who would be able to defeat their enemies. At first, because the Lord was with him he even was successful at it. But despite some impressive victories along the way Saul’s story ends in defeat.

1 Samuel 31:1

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa.[1]

This was no strategic withdrawal. In world war II the allied troops had to flee before the advancing Germans troops to avoid being completely overrun by the Nazis. It was a hasty desperate retreat ahead of what was a vastly superior force of men and armoured vehicles racing to cut them off. But against all odds the allied forces evacuate their forces from Europe coming up with a makeshift plan that ultimately saw them rescue over 300,000 troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk. Although the allied troops were forced to flee, it was so that they could return to fight another day. But the fleeing of the Israelites was no strategic and orderly withdrawal. There was no planning at all. It was just mass panic that led to many falling on Mount Gilboa and Israel abandoning their towns and villages leaving them once again to the Philistines. Saul story ends in defeat.


But Saul story isn’t just a tragedy because of the defeat but because everyone around him dies.

  • Saul falls on his own sword

Firstly, Saul dies a tragic death. Some commentators describe it as a heroic death. Joyce Baldwin for instance wrote in her commentary that “Saul heroically fell upon his own sword rather than have the uncircumcised Philistines make sport of him”. I personally don’t quite think it is meant to be seen as a heroic act.  I haven’t read many stories where pleading with your armour bearer to finish you off and then falling on your own sword when he refused to do so was considered heroic.

I think what we are meant to understand is that Saul’s life ends in tragedy. I think that what we see is the utter hopeless of a person who has come to the end of his life knowing that he is without God and without hope. We must remember that just the night before, Saul had been filled with fear because Samuel had told him that the Lord would hand him and his sons over to their enemies and by the next day they would all be dead (see 27:20). In the end Saul knew that he was coming under the Lord judgment and knew that nothing he could do would change this outcome and so he did what he thought was the only thing that he could do. He took his own life. I think falling on his own sword was understandable act of desperation and utter hopelessness. I think it’s a tragic end.

  • Saul’s sons die

The whole scene is a tragedy for everyone around Saul also died. Saul’s three sons all died including his oldest Jonathon. The loss of these three was bad enough but for Jonathon to be among their number was a tragedy.

Jonathan was a man who trusted the Lord. He was strong and courageous leader. He was a man who had made up for many of his father’s inadequacies. He was the first one to realise that the Lord had chosen David to be the next king. But unlike his father Jonathon gladly accepted the Lord’s will and he had committed himself to serve David. He was loyal and faithful and at times strengthened David by reassuring him that he would be king and he (Jonathon) would be his second. But, even faithful and loyal and courageous Jonathon died that day.

The losses are summarised in verses 6.

1 Samuel 31:6

So Saul and his three sons and his armour-bearer and all his men died together that same day.

  • All Saul’s men died

“All Saul’s men” isn’t a reference to everyone in the army but all Saul’s hand-picked crack troops that he gathered around him.  Earlier in the story we were told that whenever Saul “saw a brave or mighty man he took him into his service” (14:52). Saul surrounded himself with the best fighters but everyone, of them died that day protecting their king. Even his armour bearer fell on his sword following the example of Saul.

I think that Saul’s story is a tragedy not just because of how things ended up but because we know that they didn’t necessarily need to end that way. Often a tragedy is made even more tragic because we know that the disaster might have been avoided if different choices had been made.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If only Romeo cousin hadn’t stepped in to defend the family’s honour he might not have died, and Romeo might never have killed Juliet’s relative and been banished from the city. If only Romeo had got Friar Laurence’s message that Juliet’s death was just a fake Romeo would never have swallowed that poison and Juliet would never have woken up to find Romeo dead by her side and she would never have taken his own life with his dagger. But the nature of a tragedy is that you can often see how things could have been different, if different choices were made along the way.

How it ended up a tragedy

As I said I don’t like tragedies, but we tell the stories of tragedy because there are things that we can learn from them. They sometimes teach us not to make the same mistakes ourselves as those in the story. What I want to do today is to consider with you some of the foolish choices that Saul made that inevitably led him to his tragic end.

Saul didn’t take sin seriously

The first mistake that Saul made was that Saul didn’t take sin seriously. He refused to believe that his disobedience really mattered to God. He didn’t think that God cared about whether he kept his commandments or not so long as he got the job done. He didn’t take sin seriously because he didn’t see sin for what it really is. He didn’t heed the warning that Samuel had given him and the people of Israel about disobeying the Lord and sinning against him.

1 Samuel 12:13-15

13 Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you asked for; see, the Lord has set a king over you. 14 If you fear the Lord and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God—good! 15 But if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.

But Saul didn’t heed this word. He didn’t fear the Lord and obey his commands for in the next chapter (chapter 13) Samuel must rebuke Saul for not waiting for the prophet Samuel to make the sacrifice. He completely he ignored the Word of God and did what was right in his own eyes. It was like the Garden of Eden all over again. And like Adam and Eve in the Garden he then made excuses for why he hadn’t obeyed the word of the Lord. Samuel said that Saul had acted foolishly.

1 Samuel 13:13-14

13 “You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

Saul failed to see that to ignore the Word of God and to not keep the Lord’s commands is the sin of rebellion. He thought it really didn’t matter what he did. Saul failed to see that by continuing to ignore the word of the Lord he was effectively turning away from the Lord and that the Lord’s hand would be against him. After Saul failed to do everything the Lord had told him concerning the Amalekites the Lord was grieved and he told Samuel that Saul had turned away.

1 Samuel 15:10

10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Saul didn’t see or rather he refused to see (for there is a wilfulness about this) that ignoring God was to turn away from the Lord. He didn’t recognise that to not listen to God is the sin of rebellion and that the hand of the Lord wouldn’t be with him but would be against him. He played around with sin pretending that it didn’t matter, and his life end up a tragedy because of this. Things just went from bad to worse.

This is something that we all need to understand. Sin does matter. We act like fools if we think that that it doesn’t matter. We live in a world that wants to believe that God doesn’t care what we do or don’t do. But there are serious consequences to ignoring God and not doing what his words says. It has a tragic outcome for in the end what we doing is turning away from the Lord and we find the Lord isn’t with us but against us. We make ourselves his enemies while pretending to be his friends. It is more serious than we care to admit. It is the sin of rebellion and instead of pretending it doesn’t matter we need to repent of it. To wilfully do that which we know that which the word of God tells us not to do, is to turn away from the Lord and if we don’t repent but persist in it we will come under his judgment.

We must take sin seriously. In Hebrews 10, the writer of Hebrews warns believers about deliberately continue to sin.

Hebrews 10:26-27

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

All of us need to recognise the seriousness of sin. Saul never recognised the seriousness of sin. He did whatever he wanted, and he thought that he could get away with it.

Saul refused to repent

The second mistake that Saul made was that he refused to repent even when someone like Samuel pointed out how he had disobeyed the Lord. The Lord sent Samuel to confront Saul with his sin, but Saul refused to really repent. He would either deny that he had done anything wrong or make excuses as to why disobeying the Lord was the most reasonable thing that he could have done in the situation or when he talked about repentance it was because he didn’t like the way things were working out for himself at the time rather than wanting to turn back to the Lord to honour him.

Listen to his response to Samuel’s rebuke in chapter 15. First it began with denial.

1 Samuel 15:20-21

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

Saul started out with denial, he then moves to blaming the soldiers and later he will fake repentance because he wanted Samuel the prophet of the Lord to come back with him and honour him before the elders.

1 Samuel 15:25-26

25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”

26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

Saul wasn’t keen to turn back to the Lord but to just have Samuel come with him so that he might be honoured.

1 Samuel 15:30

30 Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honour me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.”

Saul was always more concerned for how things appeared. He first denied, he blamed and then he faked repentance if he thought it would work out better for him. He wanted to be honoured and did what he thought was necessary to make that happen. If we are to take sin seriously we must repent and turn away from it and turn back to the Lord. I don’t think we see Saul ever really doing this for if he had he wouldn’t have rejected the one that the Lord had chosen to replace him because of his sin.

Saul rejected the Lord’s annointed

Lastly Saul made the mistake of rejecting the Lord’s anointed – the king that God had chosen to replace him and to lead and rescue his people. If Saul had taken his sin seriously and been truly repentant he would haven’t tried to hold on to the throne but gratefully surrendered it to the one that God had chosen to sit on it. Saul wouldn’t have tried to kill David but would have welcomed him when it became clear to him that David was the man after God’s own heart who the Lord had chosen to rescue his people. But Saul was unwilling to let go of what he had and give it up. He desperately tried to hold on to a throne which wasn’t his to hold on to and keep for himself. Instead of having David standing alongside him at the end he made the Lord’s anointed his enemy and faced his enemies alone.

The trouble with all of us is we are tempted to hold on to what we have and not give it up. But even David knew that he was only warming the spot for another.  In Psalm 110 David wrote…

Psalm 110:1

 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

David knew that he was only warming the seat for someone far greater than him. Centuries would pass before the one would come whohe would come but God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way and to announce his coming. It would be at his baptism that the Lord would anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and declare him to be the man after his own heart. The Lord Jesus would rescue his people from their greatest enemy. He would rescue us from the sin that makes all our stories a tragedy.

Our stories don’t have to end in tragedy

Our stories don’t have to end in tragedy. We can have the “happily ever after” ending. Tragedy can be avoided but we must learn from Saul’s mistakes.

We must take sin seriously

We must take sin seriously. We aren’t to make excuses. We aren’t to plead special circumstances. We aren’t to blame others. We aren’t to pretend that what we have done doesn’t matter to God. We must realise that we have all turned away from God and we need to repent turn away from doing things our way and turn back and repent.

We must repent

If we want our stories to have the “happily-ever after” ending, then we need to repent. We need to stop holding on to the idea that we should be the ones to rule our lives or that we can ourselves and to look to the one that the Lord has appoint to rule and rescue his people. We need the right man standing by our side.

We must accept the Lord’s anointed.

We must therefore welcome the Lord’s and surrender our throne to him. This is what Saul refused to do and instead of having the Lord’s anointed standing at his side when he needed him most he stood alone facing his enemies. But things could have been different. His story didn’t need to end a tragedy.

Our story doesn’t need to be a tragedy. We can have the “happily ever after ending”. But we need the right man by our side. We need the Lord Jesus who the Lord sent to rescue his people from our greatest enemies, sin and death. He paid the price for our sin, dying in our place to release us from the sentence of death. The Lord has appointed his king so that when the end of our story comes we will have nothing to fear. Even David realised that he was only warming the seat for one far greater than him. In Psalm 110 David wrote…

Psalm 110:1

 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

David knew that Lord would appoint a king who sit on the throne forever and he acknowledge him to be his Lord. He knew that he would deliver his people from their enemies. He also knew that he could have the “happily ever after ending” even though he would pass through the shadow of death. He wrote at the end of Psalm 23 “ I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

We can have “the happily ever after” ending if we turn back to God and trust the one he has appointed to rule and rescue his people.




[1] Unless otherwise indicated all Scriptures citation come from The Holy Bible: New International Version—Anglicised. (1984). (electronic edition). London: Hodder & Stoughton.