The David Saga, Episode 5 – Saul’s Death

For this week please read 1 Samuel 27-31. This week’s episode is one of treachery, death, and ultimately redemption.

LAST WEEK:

Last Week’s episode begins with David’s massacre of the Philistines during the siege of Keilah. Only after the battle does Saul arrive in the town. Saul’s purpose was not to help the town against the Philistines but to capture David. The men of Keilah remember Saul’s destruction of the city of Nob for giving David aid and comfort, and therefore, tell David he must immediately leave. David and his men flee to the very edge of Israel into the wilderness of southeastern Judah between the Dead Sea and the Negev desert. There David sets up a business protecting herdsman from desert tribes. He finds a second (or third wife depending on how Michal is counted) in Abigail, the widow of Nabal. Saul continues to hut David. David is given the opportunity to kill Saul but declines to slay “God’s anointed.” When Saul realizes that David has spared his life, Saul vows to pursue David no longer.

THIS WEEK:  

This week’s episode takes a very dark turn. God is mentioned only to comment on God’s absence from the story. Despite the darkness, the episode ends with the teaching that all darkness eventually gives way to redemption.

The Vassal of the Philistines: (Ch. 27)

David is in a quandary. David knows that Saul’s promise to give up his pursuit will only last a moment. As we have seen throughout the story, Saul’s promises of peace and reconciliation never last long. David has exhausted places to run and hide from Saul within Israel and his home tribe of Judah. He, therefore, realizes that he must go into exile. David’s family has taken refuge in Moab located on the other side of the Dead Sea. David, however, does not go to Moab. In going to Moab, David would certainly have had to disband his militia and he would no longer be in a military position to take over the kingdom of Israel should anything happen to Saul. David also presumably could have sought refuge in Egypt, like Jacob, but Egypt held the same limitations as Moab.

David needs a place of exile which will allow him to keep his militia and which is close enough to Israel so that if anything happens to Saul, David can react immediately with his military to secure the throne for himself. David sees his only option is to seek refuge with the Philistines. Notably, David does not consult God with this decision.

As we have seen, the Philistines are the sworn mortal enemy of Israel. David had earlier sought refuge with the Philistine king, Achish of Gath, and had to feign madness. (21:10-15). This time, Achish sees a great political benefit in bringing David under his rule and protection. Achish, like everyone else, knows that David is the best bet to succeed Saul as king of Israel and he knows that Israel will be a more formidable opponent of the Philistines should this occur. Therefore, Achish seizes this opportunity to separate David from his people.

Achish gives David the town of Ziklag. The town is located at the very edge of the Negev desert to the south. As a vassal, David takes an oath of obedience to serve his Philistine king. The dilemma in our story is that if David actually becomes loyal to the Philistines, he is a traitor to his own people, but if he is not loyal to the Philistines then he is a deceiver of them.

David’s oath of obedience requires David to provide booty to Achish. David is now a mercenary raider for the Philistines. David’s operational territory is in southern Judah into the Negev. Achish wants David to raid the herds and villages belonging to Israel or their allies thereby making David’s own people turn against him. Instead, David betrays Achish’s intent. David raids the Amalekites (the historic enemies of Israel (Ex. 17:16)) and other desert tribes.

David’s problem is that Achish cannot know that David is not raiding the Israelite villages of Judah. Therefore, David must wipe out everyone in every village that he raids so that there are no witnesses against him. David’s savagery and deception remind us that evil runs through every human heart, even the precursor to the Messiah.

David’s other problem is that even though he does not raid Judean villages, he nonetheless is being protected by and working for the Philistines for sixteen months. David’s loyalty to his people becomes suspect. David’s suspect loyalty will later make his transition to king a very bloody situation.

The Witch of Endor: (Ch. 28)

With David sidelined, the Philistines are now ready to press their attack across the Jezreel Valley. The Jezreel Valley lies at the far northern reaches of Philistine territory which is why they have not pressed a battle here until now. David is no longer a problem on their southern flank. The Jezreel is the only flat land in all of Israel that runs from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, meeting the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. The invasion will cut Israel in half and allow the Philistines to control the most agriculturally productive region in Saul’s kingdom.

Saul has no choice but to fight. However, as we have seen, the Philistines have a more technologically advanced military. They have iron weapons and chariots, whereas the Israelites have predominately bronze weapons. In the hills, the Israelites can better hold their defensive positions, but in a valley defensive positions are more difficult. Saul is at his wits’ end and does not know what to do.

Like others in this position, Saul calls upon God. This is the first time in our story that Saul seeks God’s guidance. However, God is silent. Neither in dreams nor through the priests nor through the prophets does Saul hear God’s voice. Samuel is the only man who had ever been able to intercede with God on behalf of Saul, but Samuel is dead. (25:1). Therefore, Saul instructs his men to seek a sorceress so that he may talk with Samuel. The use of mediums is prohibited and carries the death penalty. (Lev. 20:27)

Saul’s men take him to a witch in the town of Endor. Saul disguises himself as a woman and visits the witch under the cover of darkness. Picture the king of Israel with his army gathered and the battle pending, dressing as a female to go consult a medium for advice. The witch successfully conjures up Samuel from the grave. (The theological implications on this are endless.) He appears as a god coming out of the earth and bearing the appearance of an old man in a robe. Her success appears to surprise even herself.

Samuel is unhappy having been disturbed. Samuel reminds Saul of Samuel’s prophecies that Saul’s kingdom would be taken out his hands and Saul would die in battle. Samuel tells Saul that this prophecy will be fulfilled tomorrow. Samuel tells Saul that in the pending battle with the Philistines, he and his sons will die. Saul, Jonathan, and his two other sons are dead men walking.  

Upon hearing Samuel’s words, Saul collapses on the ground. His servants urge him to rise for the battle that will commence at daybreak. The witch of Endor then graciously prepares for him his last meal.

David in the Jezreel Valley: (ch.29)

Achish believes that David has been the model vassal for the last year. David brings him tribute and has not caused him any problems. Achish now wants to incorporate David and his men into the Philistine army for the battle against Saul and the Israelites in the Jezreel Valley. David and his men leave Ziklag and begin traveling north with the Philistines towards the Jezreel. David will soon be in the position of having to fight against Saul and his own people. We do not know what David was thinking. Certainly, David did not want to take up arms against his own people and God’s anointed king, but if David refused Achish’s invitation, then David would violate his oath of obedience, lose Achish’s protection, and would probably be killed. David’s initial decision to seek protection with the Philistines has culminated in this most unfortunate of circumstances.

The Philistine commanders, however, let David out. They do not want to go to war with the Israelites when an Israelite is in their army. They demand that Achish send David home. David verbally protests and affirms his loyalty to Achish, but he is nonetheless sent away. David is saved from having to fight his countrymen and Saul. However, David also does not lift a spear to defend Saul or his homeland. There is no epiphany that he should switch sides. With Israel in peril, he sits the battle out. Our hero never comes to his people’s defense.

Amalekites’ Sack of Ziklag: (Ch. 30:1-15)

With David and his men away following the Philistines into battle with Saul, the Amalekites get their revenge. For more than a year, David had been raiding and destroying Amalekite settlements. Now the Amalekites attack and destroy David’s town of Ziklag. Unlike David, however, the Amalekites do not kill anyone. Rather, the Amalekites take the people who were there (including David’s wives) as part of the spoils to be used or sold. David’s men are so upset at this occurrence, that a rebellion against David almost breaks out. We can see the anguish and the anger in David and in all of his men who, expecting to return home to their families, instead return home to emptiness.

Now is one of the great pivotal moments in the story of David. His family has been abducted, his troops are furious, and he is still living deep in Philistine territory at the time of a great battle between his countrymen and his overlord. David’s leadership is imperiled. At this time, and for the first time in this episode, David goes to God. He summons Abiathar, the priest, with the ephod (priestly garment) and with the urim and thummim (binary divining lots) and inquires as to his next step. Abiathar reads the signs and tells David to pursue the Amalekites and that he will be successful. David sets off with four hundred men to the Negev. Two hundred of David’s men stay behind because they are too weak for the pursuit.

Abiathar’s divination by lots only gives “yes” or “no” answers. The lots do not tell David exactly where the raiders’ camp is located. Nonetheless, David and his men take-off in the general direction of the Amalekite region. As they begin their journey, God once more intervenes through a left-behind Egyptian slave. Picture David and his four hundred men in the desert looking for any signs of where the raiding party went. In their search, they come upon a lone figure near death. The Egyptian slave tells David that he belonges to the Amalekites who raided Ziklag. They had left him behind in the desert because he fell sick and could no longer keep up. David gives him food and water. In return for David’s promise that he would not be killed nor handed back over the Amalekites, the Egyptian takes David to the Amalekite hideout. As we have seen throughout his life, David listens to the voice of guidance. Without the assistance of this poor slave and listening to him, David may have never found his family, the family of his men, and all of their property. Had the Egyptian slave not been there, our story probably would have ended here with David being killed by his own men. 

Amalekites Discovered: (Ch. 30:16-31)

David discovers the Amalekite raiding party. Imagine the scene. The Amalekites are feasting and drinking, celebrating their victory, and enjoying their spoils. David and his men approach the camp unnoticed. The Amalekites knew that David was off fighting with the Philistines and certainly did not expect an attack. As the sun begins to set, and the light begins to fade, David’s four hundred fall upon the Amalekites with a vengeance. There is confusion in the Amalekite camp as drunk men scramble to comprehend the situation and locate their weapons. The battle rages for a full day until the next evening as David and his men kill almost every member of the raiding party. A few hundred Amalekites mount the camels that had been used to carry the spoil and escape into the desert.

David and his men not only recover everything, including their wives and children, their possessions, and their herds but also additional goods that had been in possession of the Amalekites. We now see the great political acumen of David which will serve him well as king. When his surviving men return to the ruins of the city, they encounter the two hundred men that stayed behind. Those that engaged in the battle do not want to share with those that stayed behind. David, however, commanded that all the goods be distributed equally among all his men – those that fought and those that stayed behind. His army would share and share alike, there was to be no distinction.

The excess spoils rightly belonged to David as the leader. David was within his rights to retain this excess. Instead, David distributed the excess to the elders of Judah. These elders and their people had provided some protection for David and had previously allowed him to roam among them. David is not only repaying these elders for their kindness, but he is showing that he is truly one of them and does not belong to the Philistines. David is also laying the groundwork for his ascension to the throne of Israel by securing the support of his own tribe of Judah.

Death of Saul: (Ch. 31:1-7)

While David is out chasing down the Amalekites, the battle of the Jezreel Valley is taking place between Saul’s Israelite forces and Achish’s Philistines. As Samuel foretold, the battle does not go Saul’s way. Saul’s forces are pushed back to Mt. Gilboa located in the southeastern portion of the Jezreel. The Philistine archers rain their arrows on Saul’s position gravely wounding him. The Israelite forces commanded by Jonathan and Saul’s two other sons are overrun. Jonathan and his brothers are killed. Saul’s position is surrounded. He tries to convince his armor-bearer into killing him, but the man refuses. Instead of being taken captive, Saul takes his own life and falls upon his sword. The Israelite army sees Saul die, and it scatters. The Israelites see their army dissolve, and they flee their cities and return to the safety of the hills. The era of Saul’s rule is over. What began with the promise of permanent safety of the Israelite people from Philistine assault has now been completely reversed.

Body of Saul: (Ch. 31: 8-13)

The Philistines find Saul’s body. They decapitate the corpse and fasten it to the wall of the town of Bethshan along with the corpses of his three sons. Saul’s head is hung in the temple of the Philistine god Dagon. (1 Chron. 10:10). The Philistines proudly display their trophies in their desecration of the bodies. The story of Saul ends when the men of the Israelite town of Jabesh-Gilead, located east of the Jordan across from the Jezreel Valley, stage a late-night raid and retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Jabesh-Gilead was the first town that Saul liberated when he became king. 1 Sam. 11. The town has returned the favor. Saul’s bones are then buried at the site of his first victory.

MEANING:

In traditional Christianity, all of Scripture has four meanings: Literal, Moral, Allegorical, and Anagogical. Besides being a great story, where is the deeper meaning within these texts? As Christians, we should constantly strive to pull out these deeper meanings otherwise the stories simply remain stories.

Moral

This week’s episode shows us what happens when we when put ourselves and our interests first. David needed refuge. He could have gone peacefully to Moab or maybe Egypt, but that would have required that he give up his militia and the political and economic power he had amassed. David is unwilling to part with these assets. While Saul is defending the homeland to his death, David is under the command of the Philistine king. David is a man who massacres entire villages for the sole purpose of stealing their property so that he can feign loyalty to a foreign power. David has compromised his most precious values and resorted to the most despicable actions to maintain his personal interests.

Therefore, David causes us to think about the compromises we make by living in the world for ourselves. What values are we willing to compromise to keep ourselves on top and relevant? Who are we willing to harm to help ourselves?

Allegorical:

In the allegorical meaning of Chapter 30, the Amalekites are the world and David is Christ. Like the Egyptian slave, the world leaves behind the poor and the weak. The world casts them aside, ignores them, and rejects them. The world pushes them out into a spiritual and economic desert to die when they are no longer useful. But Christ meets them there. We see this in the meeting of David and the Egyptian slave. The slave had been turned out to die in the desert because he could not keep up. David gives him food, water, shelter, and freedom. David’s actions show us how Jesus will also deal with similar people. “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matt 11:4-5

Anagogical:

The anagogical meaning sees events as prefiguring the life to come. In David’s recapture of the people of Ziklag from their Amalekite raiders, we see the prefiguring of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell whereby the entombed Jesus descends to the dead and conquers hell to bring freedom to those imprisoned by the demons. Like the demons, the Amalekites took those who rightly belonged to God’s Messiah David. Therefore, David rightly pursues these demons to secure the release of his own, and particularly his bride. Like David’s complete victory over the Amalekite party where no one is lost, Jesus too secures a complete victory over hell and death, and successfully brings back all those who belong to him.

NEXT WEEK:

In next week’s episode (2 Samuel 1-4), the remnants of Saul’s household led by Saul’s son Ishbosheth and Saul’s military led by his former commander Abner attempt to hold onto power. David will quickly secure the leadership of the tribe of Judah but must fight these remnants of Saul to obtain the throne of the entire nation. Within this struggle, David is always one step removed from the necessary assassinations that must occur for David to to succeed.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
   let me not be humiliated,
   nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
   let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord, *
   and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
   for you are the God of my salvation;
   in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
   for they are from everlasting.

Psalm 25:1-5 – A Psalm of David for guidance and deliverance

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.