1. What do you think is the most important lesson you have gleaned from our study in 1 Samuel?
2. What is the paradox of power? (See 2 Chron. 26:15-16) What relevance does this have in your own life?
3. What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy pride?
4. Where do you need to be humbled? If Satan were to attempt to inflate your pride, what area of your life would it be?
5. "As God judges, He also saves." What does that mean? How do Samuel and David point us to Christ?
Rosaria was living a comfortable life. She was a tenured professor of English and critical theory at a prestigious university, and her radical feminism, post-structuralism, and lesbianism insured that she was always on the “right side of history.” She had a strong network of hospitable friends, meaningful romantic relationships, and filled her time with all manner of volunteering and community service. She writes, “My life at this time was happy, meaningful, and full.”
All of that changed when Rosaria experienced what she calls “a trainwreck conversion.” She happened to become friends with a neighbor who was a pastor of a small Reformed Presbyterian church who spent years inviting her over to his home, sharing meals with her, reading books she would recommend him, and discussing the Bible with her. Slowly, over time, Rosaria came under the conviction of her own sin and of the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and was converted. Here is how she describes her experience:
“Of course, there’s only one thing to do when you meet the living God, you must fall on your face and repent of your sins. I could only touch one sin at this point: pride.” Now, you might assume that the sin she would pinpoint here is her sin of homosexuality. She had been in a lesbian relationship for years, taught queer theory in her classroom, advocated for LGBT policies, and marched in pride parades. But, she saw (with deep irony) that it was precisely pride that undergirded her sexual sin. She writes, “My life was filled with pride. I repented of my pride that led me to believe that I could invent my own rules for faith, life, and sexual autonomy, that said that I was entitled to live separately from God.” Pride, Rosaria writes in her fantastic book Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was the root of her sexual sin. In fact, all of the greatest teachers throughout the history of the church, from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin, have taught that pride is the root of all sin. Pride is the nuclear reactor of all sin because it is the anti-God state of mind. I get to define what is right and wrong, I get to decide what is best, I put “me” first. What links homosexuality, racism, greed, condescending snobbery towards outsiders, and my impatience towards my children while trying to get out of the door? They all flow from a heart and mind that belittles God, and exalts the self.
“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil…it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began,” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Great Sin”).
Today, we come to the tragic conclusion of 1 Samuel, a story that demonstrates Lewis’ wisdom. Pride, worldly power, and self-exaltation were what we were warned of all the way back at the very beginning in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. God opposes the proud, but exalts the humble. Saul is a realistic and powerful case-study on what pride looks like in a religious setting. And, just as Lewis wrote, we will see how it has led to misery for the family of Saul and the nation he governs.
The Bible is a fascinating book that is created by God through the means of mankind. The author of Samuel was a literary genius who uses every tool at his disposal to both tell a great story and evocatively underline the essential truths God wants us to know.
And Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD;
my horn is exalted in the LORD.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.
…3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
…7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
…10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
- 1 Sam 2:1, 3-4, 7, 10
Hannah’s song is a song of Jesus’ teaching: the first will be last, and the last will be first. God poetically and artistically underscores this by making the location of Saul’s death, what we will be studying today, specifically “Gilboa.” We were told back in Hannah’s song that we should “talk no more so very proudly,” (1 Sam 2:3). The Hebrew word for “proud” is the word g’boah, which just so happens to be the same word for “tall.” And, of course, when we first met Saul we were specifically told that he was more g’boah than anyone else in all of Israel; twice we are told, “From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people,” (1 Sam 9:2; 10:23). Saul is so g’boah that his hometown is just called Gibeah. There are only two other places that word appears in Samuel, one of them being is to describe Goliath (1 Sam 17:4), a man who is more g’boah than even Saul. But, like Goliath, Saul’s life ends with his head being cut off. So, to put it together: the g’boah man from Gibeah dies on Gilboa like Goliath. It is a clever way to cement a warning into our minds: if we exalt ourselves, God will bring us down; but if we humble ourselves, than we can be exalted in Christ, we can, like Hannah, be exalted in the Lord. The only other place g’boah is used in 1 Samuel is in the warning God gives Samuel when he is selecting the new king, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height (g’boah) of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” (1 Sam 16:7).
Exalt yourself? You’ll be thrown down.
Humble yourself? You’ll be exalted in Jesus Christ.
Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. 3 The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. 4 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. 5 And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. 6 Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. 7 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.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 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. 10 They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. 11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 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. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.
- 1 Sam 31
What Saul Was
The chapter reads like a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A tragic end to an overly ambitious king who was willing to forsake his integrity and sacrifice his sanity for the sake of power. But at the very end of the chapter, we are given a little reminder of what Saul’s beginning looked like. After Saul’s death and beheading, his body and the bodies of his sons are strapped to the wall of Beth-shan to further humiliate Israel. But then we are told that the men of Jabesh-gilead steal away in the night and recover the bodies of Saul and his sons and then bury them under a tamarisk tree (1 Sam 31:11-13).
Why do the men of Jabesh-gilead perform this dangerous act of honoring the fallen king and his sons? The men remember Saul’s heroic salvation he worked for their city all the way back in 1 Samuel 11, when the Ammonites were planning on gouging out the right eyes of everyone in the city. But Saul mustered the forces of Israel together and routed the Ammonites, saved the city. This was the first act that Saul performed as king.
But listen to what Saul does after he defeats the Ammonites: “Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.” 13 But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.” 14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly,” (1 Sam 11:12-15). Saul sounds so good here! He is victorious, He is merciful, He acknowledges the Lord as the one who saves, He renews the kingdom, He leads Israel to make sacrifices to the Lord, and everyone rejoices greatly!
It feels like every day we hear of another story of a Christian leader disqualifying himself, another documentary is released showing how religious conservatives abused their power, another headline of a politician whose life doesn’t align with their religious family values. One of the points of the story of Saul is that you can start out looking well, but how you end is what matters. Starting something is easy. It is easy to start a business. It is easy to get married. It is easy to make a baby. But running a business, staying married, and raising a child are hard. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,” (Eccl 7:8), so writes the author of Ecclesiastes, because the end of a thing reveals what was actually there all along, what foundation the building really rested on. How can you keep yourself from winding up like Saul? Like Ravi Zacharias? Three things you can do: (1) read your Bible and pray every day with the aim of applying what you have read, (2) confess your sins and pray regularly with another godly Christian—don’t know how to do that? Join a small group, (3) attend church every Sunday with an eagerness to hear the gospel and its outworking’s from God.
Why do they bury him under a tamarisk tree? I don’t know if we need to read into any significance of the tamarisk tree itself, but it is a very rare word, used only three times in the whole Bible—two of them come from 1 Samuel. Perhaps the tamarisk tree was a location that Saul sat under when making royal judgments or proclamations, “Saul was sitting at Gibeah under the tamarisk tree on the height with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him,” (1 Sam 22:6).
Here we see Saul at the height—literally—of his power. His hometown, “Gibeah” is just the Hebrew word for hill, a literal high place. But 22:6 even goes out of its way to emphasize that he was sitting “on the height.” He is surrounded by a company of servants, and his spear is in his hand. We will look at the symbol of sword and spear next, but it is a symbol of power. Directly following this, Saul begins to connive how he can slay David, who he has turned into his enemy simply because David is more popular and more successful than Saul is. At first, Saul was moral and powerful…now, he is only powerful. This is what pride does.
Pride is inherently competitive. It isn’t about being in a high place or having lots of money or being attractive…its about being in a higher place than the other guy, having more money and being more attractive than the others. There is a healthy kind of pride that delights in a thing for its own sake. I can be proud of my son because he has done something worthy of praise, or I can take pride in my work because I have created something great—and that is right. But what will I do when someone else’s work comes along and it is way better than my own? If the people start singing, Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands? If I become angry or depressed or manipulative, then I am living by the kind of pride that the Bible rejects, that God opposes. This is the pride that controls Saul.
And it is this lust for power and prominence that drives Saul into the ground—literally—in chapter 31. In chapter 22, Saul sat exalted in power under the tamarisk…by 31, his charred bones lay buried under the tree. You can start out so well…and end tragically. And for Saul, even though it looked so good at the beginning, in time we see that it was not a genuine love of God that motivated him, but pride. And though he seemed so powerful and formidable, he is just a man who is as transient and mortal as any other man, whose life will terminate in the ground.
What Saul Has Become
The Philistines line up for battle and defeat Israel completely. This chapter gives us several connections with the very first battle that Israel has with the Philistines, all the way back in chapter four. Just before that battle we saw the wicked prophet Eli being told by (a young) Samuel that both he and his sons would be punished by the Lord (1 Sam 3:10-14; cf. 2:27-36). Just before Saul’s battle, a very old Samuel comes back from dead to tell Saul that both he and his sons would be punished by the Lord (1 Sam 28:19). In 1 Samuel 4, Eli dies on the same day as his sons, who perish in a battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 4:17-18), and in 1 Samuel 31 Saul and his sons die together. In fact, both Saul and Eli actually kill themselves—Eli only did accidentally, by throwing himself backwards and breaking his neck. What is God showing us? We should draw a connection between Eli and Saul—men who were powerful leaders, who were externally religious, while being internally devious. Men who toyed around with God and used Him, but did not fear Him.
But, of course, Saul and Eli’s position, strength, and ability came by Yahweh. They were scuba divers who thought the reason they were able to be underwater for an hour was because of how long they could hold their breath, who became so cocky, that they took their oxygen tanks off.
This is the paradox of power for Saul: God gave Him strength and victory, but He assumed the strength came from himself, so he turns away from his source of strength, and so becomes weak. Like a man on life-support reaching over and shutting off the machine keeping him alive because he is feeling better, unaware that to shut it off is to end his life. If you study every battle that Israel has with the Philistines in 1 Samuel, you’ll notice a pattern: every time Israel wins, it usually comes from impossible circumstances—like the ark alone beating them, or Jonathan and his armor-bearer, or David facing Goliath, or Samuel just praying as the Philistines advance!—but ultimately is given by someone trusting that salvation comes only by the hand of God; and every time they lose, even when they have sufficient forces and firepower, they fail to seek God. It is just what Jonathan told his armor bearer: “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few,” (1 Sam 14:6). No enemy is strong enough to resist God, and no king is strong enough to not need God—no matter the circumstances.
King Uzziah was a man who suffered from the same paradox of power. Uzziah was a good king who followed the Lord, and so he lived a long prosperous life, reigning for 52 years in Judah. 2 Chronicles 26 is a long list of his achievements, inventions, and victories, but then we are told this: “And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction,” (2 Chron 26:15-16). Saul’s strength, ironically, led him to destruction.
Perhaps the most dangerous place for you to be today is in a place of strength. To be so confident in your intelligence or business prowess or physical beauty or social skills that you subtly begin to think that you don’t need much in life, and you certainly aren’t desperate. And maybe one sign of God’s love for you is that he hasn’t made you rich, and beautiful, and powerful, lest you have those things and forget Him.
The most poignant picture we have of this is how Saul dies. The men of Israel are fleeing, Saul has been struck by the archers, and his three sons have now died. Saul sees the Philistines drawing close, and he is fearful of what they are going to do to him (cf. Judges 16:21-27). “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 Sam 31:4). In the account we are given in 2 Samuel 1, the Amalekite messenger says that while Saul was on the hill he was “leaning on his spear” (2 Sam 1:6). The images of “sword and spear” play an important role in all of Samuel. If we had time, we would chase down all of the uses of these words to demonstrate how they serve as totems of worldly power. The sword and spear are technologies that amplify human power for the purpose of destruction. And when you put that kind of technology into the hands of men with fragile egos and inferiority complexes, they use them to overcompensate for their insecurities, as a further extension of their pride. So it is a poetic ending to Saul’s life that it is his very own sword that takes his life. It is the very object that furthered Saul’s lust for power that brings about his demise; an ignominious end to a dishonorable man.
Suicide is not the unforgivable sin. But Christians should never commit suicide not only because it is self-murder, an act of violence (which it is), but fundamentally because it is a failure to trust God. Suicide is a final act of pride, a way of remaining in control to the bitter end. Matthew Henry writes of Saul’s suicide, “Miserable man!...As he lived, so he died, proud and jealous, and a terror to himself and all about him.” Do you see the crater of consequences left behind by Saul’s pride?
“Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. 7 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,” (1 Sam 31:6-7). Saul’s sin doesn’t just affect him. Saul’s sin affects all of Israel the way a locomotive veering off the tracks affects the rest of the train cars behind it. Saul dies, his sons die, his men die, and all of Israel now must flee their homes and cities. The more authority that you have, the greater the consequence of your sin. If a single man does some heinous deed and is thrown in jail, it is a tragic thing. But now consider how much more tragic, how much more devastating is the impact of his sin if…he is married? Is a father? Is a teacher? Is a pastor? This should sober all of us in positions of authority, whether you are a parent, a coach, an aunt, a boss, a small group leader, or an elder. When we walk into sin, we drag everyone who is under our authority along with us.
Saul started out powerful and promising. But he has now become a devastation to all.
Who God Has Always Been
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by this conclusion if we have been reading 1 Samuel. Saul was told in chapter 28, “The LORD has done to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David,” (1 Sam 28:17).
He was told back in chapter 15, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you,” (1 Sam 15:28).
And he was told in chapter 13, “But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you,” (1 Sam 13:14).
God will be faithful to His Word. And here, at the end of 1 Samuel, we see Him be faithful to His word of judgment. This is like the judgment that we are warned of in the book of Hebrews: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries,” (Heb 10:26-27). The wages of sin is death. We have all been warned. If we hear this message of truth and cast it aside, we will be doomed. There is no other sacrifice for sins that remain other than the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
God opposes the proud. But gives grace to the humble.
But notice: in every word of judgment of God has spoken against Saul, He has always pointed to the hope of David. As God judges, He also saves. There is a better king to come. We aren’t left with vain, selfish, ego-centric men who abuse power. God will oppose men like Saul, and exalt men like David. We see this demonstrated even in the word of judgment spoken against the wicked priest, Eli, all the way back in chapter two when he is told that God will judge both him and his sons, “And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever,” (1 Sam 2:35). As God judges, He also saves. God won’t leave us to Eli’s and Saul’s. He will raise up Samuel’s and David’s. Men who will speak the truth, who will use their authority in the fear of the Lord, who are centered on God’s heart. But as wonderful as Samuel and David are, they still disappoint. They are men who genuinely love the Lord and who use their position for the good of others. But their role in the grand story of the Bible is to simply to point forward to the final Prophet, the final Priest, the final King: Jesus Christ, the son of David.
Jesus is the better Samuel, who not only speaks God’s Word to us, but is the very Word of God. Jesus isn’t merely a conduit of God, like Samuel, but He brings the reality of God to us. Jesus is the better Samuel who doesn’t merely offer up sacrifices on our behalf, but who gives Himself as the final sacrifice which cleanses us from sin once and for all so that no more sacrifices are needed.
Jesus is the better David, who not only leads us as our champion in the fight, but who goes out and faces down the far more intimidating Goliath of our sin, Satan, and Death. He is the man who perfectly seeks after God’s own heart, because it is His very heart. He is the man who generously shares his spoils of war with those who don’t deserve it.
The last sermon that Charles Spurgeon ever preached came from the passage of Scripture we reflected on just last week: 1 Samuel 30:21-25, the story of David’s generosity towards the 200 soldiers who were too exhausted to follow along into the battle with the Amalekites. Throughout the sermon, Spurgeon showed how David’s magnanimous leadership points us forward to the great son of David, Jesus Christ:
“Every man must serve somebody — we have no choice as to that fact. Those who have no master are slaves to themselves. Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ, either self or the Savior! You will find sin, self, Satan and the world to be hard masters — but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls! He is the most magnanimous of captains! There never was His like among the choicest of princes!
He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold, He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the Cross always lies on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He also carries it. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind and tender — yes lavish and super abundant in love — you always find it in Him! These 40 years and more have I served Him, blessed be His name! And I have had nothing but love from Him. I would be glad to continue yet another 40 years in the same dear service here below if it so pleased Him. His service is life, peace, joy! Oh, that you would enter in it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen.” (Charles Spurgeon, The Statute of David for the Sharing of the Spoil)