1 Samuel 31


It seems appropriate as we approach the end of 1 Samuel to think back over the book and to summarise what it’s been about.

And so, what has it been about? Well, one of the commentaries I have on 1 Samuel has as its subtitle, ‘Looking for a Leader’. ‘Looking for a Leader.’ And that’s a pretty good summary of the book, isn’t it? The background to the book of 1 Samuel is the book of Judges which contained that four-part pattern which I’ve mentioned before. First: the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord. Second: the Lord handed them over to their enemies. Third: in their distress, the people called on the Lord for help. And fourth: the Lord answered them by sending them a judge — or a saviour really — to save them from their enemies. That pattern is repeated throughout the book of Judges until right at the end of Judges it says that in those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit. Israel had no king, no leader, to lead them in the ways of the Lord and to lead them in victory over their enemies. And so, 1 Samuel is about looking for a leader. And not just any kind of leader, but looking for the right kind of leader.

And a number of different leaders appear in 1 Samuel. Right at the beginning, we read about Eli, who was the priest, and therefore a leader of God’s people. But do you remember? His two sons were wicked and worthless men, who used to steal from the people and they used to steal from the Lord, taking from the people the portion of their offerings which belonged to the Lord; and they used to defile the Lord’s holy sanctuary by their immorality. And the thing is, Eli, their father, did nothing about it. He did nothing about it. Instead of removing them from the priesthood, he allowed them to dishonour the Lord like that.

And so, do you remember? The Lord sent a prophet to announce to Eli that he, the Lord, would remove Eli and his sons from the priesthood. And sure enough, one time when the Philistines attacked the people of Israel, Eli’s sons were killed on the battlefield; and when Eli heard the news about his sons and about the ark of the Lord which had been captured, he fell over and died. Eli was a priest and therefore a leader of God’s people; but he was not a good leader and the Lord removed him from the priesthood.

And then we read about Samuel, Hannah’s son, who became the leader of God’s people. She prayed to the Lord for a son; and the Lord heard her and answered her and enabled her to conceive and bear a son. And afterwards, she brought her son to the tabernacle to serve the Lord all the days of his life. And as he grew up, it became clear that he was a prophet of the Lord. The Lord let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. In other words, the Lord made sure that the things he revealed to Samuel happened just as Samuel said they would. And in chapter 7 we read of how Samuel called the people to turn from their sin and to return to the Lord and to worship him alone. He was a prophet, declaring the will of the Lord. And at the end of chapter 7, we read how he travelled from place to place in Israel, settling disputes among the people. He was their leader at that time.

But then, in chapter 8, we were told that Samuel was getting old and the people knew he would not be able to lead them forever. Though he was a good leader, the people realised they needed someone to replace him. And so, that’s when they asked for a king. They wanted the Lord to appoint for them a king.

Now, it was always the Lord’s intention to give them a king. But the thing is: what the people wanted was not God’s king, but they wanted a king like the nations had. And Samuel warned them about what a king like the nations had would be like and how he would take and take and take from them. He would take their sons and daughters and their land and their crops and their servants and their animals. A king like the nations had will only take from you. But despite the warnings, the people insisted that’s what they wanted. And so, the Lord gave them Saul to be their king.

And the rest of the book has been about Saul and his failures. And do you remember? He failed right from the very start, because after he had been anointed as king, Samuel told him that the Spirit of the Lord would come on him — just as the Spirit of the Lord had come on Samson in the days of the judges — and Saul should then do whatever his hand finds to do. And Samuel meant: you should go and attack the Philistines, because God has given you his Spirit to help you. But though the Spirit of the Lord came on Saul, he did not attack the Philistines; he went home and did nothing.

And, of course, then there was the time in chapter 13 when Samuel had to rebuke Saul, because Saul did not obey the command of the Lord. And then there was the time in chapter 14 when he made the foolish vow forbidding his men from eating anything when they needed all their strength to fight the Philistines. And because of his foolish vow, many of the Philistines escaped and he almost had his son Jonathan put to death. And then in chapter 15 Samuel had to rebuke Saul again for once again failing to obey the Lord. And when Goliath came and challenged the Israelites in chapter 17 to send their champion to fight against them, Saul should have gone out to fight against Goliath, because Saul was meant to be Israel’s king and champion. But he did not go. Instead David went and fought against Goliath; and from that time on, we’ve seen Saul’s jealousy of David. On two occasions he threw his spear at David to kill him. He sent men to his house to arrest him. He spent the rest of his life, pursuing David, trying his best to catch him so that he could kill him.

The Israelites wanted a leader. They needed a leader. Someone to lead them in the ways of the Lord and to lead them in victory over their enemies. But Saul was the wrong king of leader, the wrong kind of king, because he was the kind of king the nations had, a king who was unwilling to obey the word of the Lord. And because he was unwilling to obey the word of the Lord, the Lord announced that he was going to take the kingdom from Saul and give it to David, who was God’s choice to be king.

And in chapter 28, when Saul went to see the medium to see if she would bring up Samuel from the dead to advise him on what to do about the Philistines, Samuel revealed to Saul that the Lord was against him; and the Lord was planning to hand over the Israelites to the Philistines; and that Saul and his sons will die the very next day.

The people were looking for a leader. But though Saul was their leader for a time, he was the wrong kind of leader.

Chapter 31

And so, in chapter 31, we read about his death. According to verse 1, the Philistines fought against Israel. And look: just as the Lord foretold through the prophet Samuel, the Israelites fled before the Philistines and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and just as the Lord foretold through the prophet Samuel, Saul’s sons were killed. The fighting grew fierce around Saul and he was badly wounded by one of the archers. It seems that Saul knew he was dying, and in order to prevent the Philistines from finding him still alive and abusing his body, he asked his armour bearer to kill him. When the armour-bearer refused, Saul took matters into his own hands and he ended his own life by falling on his sword. Just as the Lord has foretold through the prophet Samuel, Saul died that day. And so we read in verse 6 that Saul and his three sons and his armour-bearer and all his men died together that same day. It happened just as the Lord foretold.

And when the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw what had happened, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them. The Philistine victory over the Israelites that day and the death of Saul and his sons recalls what happened in chapter 4 at the beginning of 1 Samuel when the Philistines defeated the Israelites and Eli and his sons died. In fact, that battle in chapter 4 took place in Aphek, which was also mentioned in chapter 29 as the place were the Philistines gathered their forces. And it signals to us that despite everything that has happened in this book, and all that Saul tried to do as king of God’s people, nothing much has changed, because the Israelites are still being oppressed by the Philistines and the lives of God’s people are filled with misery because of their enemies. They needed a leader: someone who would lead them in the ways of the Lord and someone who would lead them in victory over their enemies.

Verse 8 tells us that the next day, the Philistines went out to strip the dead. They went to strip them of their possessions and to see what they could plunder. And as they went through the piles of dead bodies, they discovered the bodies of Saul and his sons. And just as David once cut off Goliath’s head, so they cut off Saul’s head. And they stripped his body of his armour. And they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news. The Hebrew verb translated ‘proclaim the news’ can also be translated ‘proclaim the good news’. It’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to good news of salvation. You see, for the Philistines, the defeat of Israel and the death of Saul and his sons was good news, because the king of their enemies was dead. And since the text refers to their temples in verses 9 and 10 then we should understand that the victory over the Israelites had religious significance for the Philistines, because it seemed to them that their victory over the Israelites meant that their gods were greater than Israel’s God, because hadn’t their gods given them the victory and hadn’t Israel’s God been unable to save his people? But, of course, they did not know that the Lord, the God of Israel, had planned all of this and had foretold that it would happen. The Lord is the great King who rules and reigns over all the nations and he was the one who gave the victory to the Philistines that day, because he had turned against Saul and all who followed Saul, because Saul refused to obey the word of the Lord.

According to verses 10 and 12, they fastened Saul’s body and the bodies of his sons to the walls of one of their cities. But when the people of Jabesh-Gilead heard what they had done, their valiant men travelled through the night to retrieve the bodies. Do you remember the people of Jabesh-Gilead? Back in chapter 11, right after Saul had been anointed king by Samuel, Saul went and rescued the people of Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites. And presumably out of gratitude for what Saul had once done for them, they were prepared to risk their lives to give his body a proper burial. They burned the bodies and buried the remains under a tree and they fasted for seven days to mourn for them.


Saul was dead. For a time, he was the king of God’s people. But he was the wrong kind of king, because he did not obey the word of the Lord.

But when Saul died, the Lord had already appointed David to be king in Saul’s place. And David was the right kind of king, because he demonstrated again and again his commitment to the Lord and his willingness to obey the word of the Lord. In chapters 24 and 26, when he had the chance to take Saul’s life, he refused, because he knew it would be wrong in God’s sight to kill Saul. And in chapter 25, he learned from Abigail, who became his wife, that the Lord’s king must not take personal revenge, but must only fight the Lord’s battles. And in chapters 27 and 30 we saw him fighting the Lord’s battles, conquering the enemies of the Lord, who were living in the Promised Land at that time.

And in due course, David would be installed as king over God’s people and under his leadership, the Philistines were defeated and the people began to enjoy for the first time peace in the land. And because of his love for the Lord, David began to make plans to build a temple for the Lord so that the people could go up to the temple to worship the Lord and give him the glory and the honour that he deserved.

Saul was the wrong kind of king because he would not obey the word of the Lord, but David was the right kind of king, because he wanted to do God’s will.


Well now, King Saul followed the pattern set by Adam in the beginning. Think about Adam for a moment. God made Adam and Eve to rule the earth on his behalf and to fill it with their descendants who would do the same. But they listened to the voice of Satan, and they disobeyed the word of the Lord; and sin came into the world and death came with it. And instead of ruling over the earth, Adam and Eve and all their descendants became slaves: slaves to Satan, because he has taken the whole world captive to do his will; and slaves to sin, because sin bosses us around and makes us do what it wants; and slaves to death, because we all die and none of us can escape it.

In the beginning, God made us to rule the earth on his behalf. But Adam disobeyed the Lord and everything changed. And just as Adam disobeyed the Lord, so Saul disobeyed the Lord. He was anointed as king, but instead of obeying the word of the Lord, and instead of conquering all of God’s enemies, he disobeyed the word of the Lord and he himself was conquered by God’s enemies.

And you and I are just the same, because by nature, by birth, we are born sinners and we sin against the Lord continually. Instead of obeying the word of the Lord, we disobey his word, even though we know it. But we disobey his word and we fall short of doing his will. And by nature, by birth, we are under the tyranny of Satan, and sin bosses us around and makes us do its will and we know that in the end we will die.

King Saul followed the pattern of Adam, and that’s true of all of us, because by nature we’re sinners just like Adam and just like Saul. And if we were to remain as we are by nature, then we too would be like Saul, because in the end the Lord was against him and the Lord condemned him to die.

The Lord Jesus

But whereas King Saul followed the pattern of Adam, King David was the pattern for the one to come, who is King David’s Greater Son, Jesus Christ the Saviour. Before he was born, the angel announced that he would receive the throne of David. After he was born, wise men from the east came to pay tribute to the new king. Like David, Jesus Christ is a King.

And like David, he wanted to obey God in all things. And so he went about, doing the will of the Lord, obeying him perfectly in all things, keeping the law, resisting every temptation to sin, doing only what is good and right in the sight of God. And even when he died, he did not die as Saul did — because of disobedience. No, he died because of his obedience, because it was God’s will for him to die and to give his life as a ransom to free his people from condemnation.

And like David, who conquered the enemies of the Lord, so King Jesus is a conquering king, because he has conquered sin on behalf of his people, by giving up his life to pay for their sins. And he has conquered death, because after he died, he was raised triumphant over the grave to live forever and he promises eternal life to all who believe in him. And through the preaching of the gospel, he sets his people free from Satan’s tyranny and he calls them into his own kingdom, which he’s extending throughout the world. And when the time is right, he will come again in glory and with power. And when he comes he will conquer once and for all all of his enemies, including the Devil and all his demons and everyone who did not believe in him and who refused to yield their lives to him. He will conquer them and send them away to be punished forever. But he will gather his people, everyone who repented and believed in him as the only Saviour of the world. And he will give them everlasting life in his presence.

And just as David gave peace to his people, so King Jesus promises eternal peace to his people, because all who believe in him will live in peace and safety in God’s holy mountain in the new creation, where there will be nothing and no one to hurt them or to upset them. Death will be no more. Mourning will be no more. Crying and pain will be no more. The former things will pass away and all of his people will have perfect peace and rest.

And just as King David made plans to build a temple where the people could worship the Lord, so King Jesus is even now preparing a place for his people where they will worship God forever.


King Saul followed the pattern of Adam, as we all do, because we disobey the word of the Lord. And in the end, Saul was condemned to die. But King David was the pattern for the Lord Jesus Christ. And the way into Christ’s kingdom is by trusting in Christ as the only Saviour of the world, who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us.

And so, I say to you, if you believe in him, then you are a member of his kingdom, because the way into his kingdom is by trusting in him. And all who trust in him and who belong to his kingdom receive forgiveness and peace with God. And they receive the hope of everlasting life in that new and better world to come where they will have perfect peace and rest. And there they will worship the Lord God Almighty and Jesus Christ the King forever and forever.