In the finale of the first part of the book of Samuel, David and Saul are involved in two distinct wars that are running in parallel. While David and his men were trying to retrieve their belongings from the Amalekite raiders, Sauls’s army was taking their last stand against the fearsome Philistine forces at Mount Gilboa. The simultaneous occurrence of these battles was no coincidence but perhaps they were a symbolic way in which the baton was passed from one king to another.
After being told to return by Achish and the Philistine commanders, David and his men reached Ziklag three days later, only to find their land, their people and all their belongings raided by the nomadic tribe of the Amalekites. Their houses had been destroyed by fire and all their wives, sons and daughters had been taken captive.
David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the LORD his God.1 Samuel 30:6 NIV
It was David’s decision to accompany Achish and go to battle with Saul while leaving all their family and belongings back at Ziklag. In the end, it was a futile game of keeping up appearances as the Philistine commanders saw right through David’s facade and sent him back home. This would have definitely irked the men who did not understand the optics that David was trying to foster.
These men were attached to David since his early days on the run and he trusted them with his life. However, these men were not loyalists by any stretch of the imagination. Some of them would have left their homeland for genuine reasons but there were also those who were fed up with their masters and had decided to join David’s mission (1 Samuel 25:10). Everyone who joins the armed forces of a country is not necessarily in it for patriotic reasons. For some, it might be just a means of making a living, a way to put food on their table.
Someone’s loyalty is not tested during the peaks of the relationship but only when we are going through the lowest of valleys can we judge who is loyal to us. These were the same men who were enticing David to kill his enemy Saul. Such instigation was not of their own but from satan, as murdering Saul would have been against the will of God. Even during this incident, some of these men wanted David to act unjustly.
We must be wary of the people who we surround ourselves with. Not everyone in our fellowship has joined with us for the same intention. Some might be passive believers who are there to gain moral and spiritual satisfaction, while there might be some who are in the hands of satan with or without them being fully aware of it. Their aim is to simply destroy the very purpose of the fellowship. We must learn from David to ignore such groups and keep walking forward on the path that God has set out before us.
David Chases the Raiding Amalekites
David called on Abiathar the priest, to bring the ephod so that they may inquire of the Lord. David asked God if he should pursue the raiders and bring back their belongings and captured family members and received a response in the affirmative. David gathered his six hundred men and raced after the fleeing Amalekites all the way up to the Besor Valley. This was at least the fourth successive day of travel for these men and due to exhaustion, two hundred of them were willing to give up the chase in favour of staying behind. So David carried on with the remaining four hundred men and on the way, were met by an Egyptian slave who had been left behind by the raiding pack.
He led David down, and there they were, scattered over the countryside, eating, drinking and reveling because of the great amount of plunder they had taken from the land of the Philistines and from Judah. David fought them from dusk until the evening of the next day, and none of them got away, except four hundred young men who rode off on camels and fled. David recovered everything the Amalekites had taken, including his two wives.1 Samuel 30:16-18 NIV
As they returned back with the plunder, there were some troublemakers who were instigating David to not let the men who stayed back, have a share of the spoils. As a concession, they wanted them to take back their wife and children but the rest of the plunder should remain with the men who risked their lives to get it back.
David replied, “No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the LORD has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.1 Samuel 30:23-24
After reaching Ziklag, David sent some of the plunders to the elders of Judah. The elders of Judah provided a safe haven to David and his men on several occasions. When he was on the run from Saul and the whole nation had turned against him, David could still rely on his tribe. By paying them tributes from the plunder that he had accumulated, David is not only thanking the elders for their gratitude but also securing their vote of confidence. It was the tribe of Judah that helped him establish his throne over all of Israel. The last place mentioned in this list, Hebron, became the place where David first set up his capital as he began his forty-year reign over Israel.
The Death of Saul
While all this was happening, Saul and his men were fighting off the encroaching Philistine army. He had lost three of his sons and his general was nowhere to be found. The Israelites tried retreating to the Mount of Gilboa but to no avail, as they were being slaughtered by the Philistine army. When the fighting grew fierce around Saul and he had been badly wounded by the archers, he instructed his armour bearer to kill him.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”1 Samuel 31:4
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it.
Saul would rather die at the hands of his own man rather than be captured by the opposing army. He knew what it would mean to be captured alive and taken behind enemy lines. He himself would have shamed and tortured several kings that God had given into his hands. Saul spared the life of Agag king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:8), an act that eventually led him to be cut from the fold of God. But he did not care about that as to him parading the spoils of the victory among his subjects and garnering their praises was more valuable. Saul’s fears were founded as well, as the Philistines carried off his mortal remains throughout their land, humiliating the former king of Israel. Saul was eventually killed by an uncircumcised Amalekite slave, as he was not successful in even taking his own life.
Just as he feared, when the Philistines came the next day and found Saul and his three sons dead on Mount Gilboa, they stripped his carcass, cut off his head and sent messengers throughout the land proclaiming the news of how they won the battle against the Israelites. They put his armour in the temple of the Ashtoreths and strapped his body to the wall of Beth Shan. When the Israelites residing across the valley and the river Jordan witnessed the fall of their king, they abandoned their homes and fled to the neighbouring villages, leaving their towns desolate and open for occupation by the Philistines.
However, when the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, they gathered up their valiant men and during the night, took down the body of Saul and his sons from Beth Shan. It was the town of Jabesh Gilead which was under attack by the Ammonites and whom Saul had saved as his first act as king of Israel. The men of Jabesh Gilead would have surely remembered that daring act and how Saul had rescued their entire town from humiliation. They were grateful to Saul and perhaps that gave them the courage to march into enemy territory and retrieve the body of their fallen king. They cremated their mortal remains, took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk tree in their village. They mourned for their king and fasted for seven days.
Learnings from Saul
A sad end for the first king of Israel, whose life bore an uncanny resemblance to the speech that Samuel gave to Israel to ward off their desire for a king. But just like Saul, Israel did not listen to the voice of God and aimed to please their own desires. It is very easy to live in this era of grace and judge Saul for his myriads of shortcomings. But we have not been in his seat, his throne of power. He was given power to rule over all of God’s people and the wisdom to strategise countless battles. But what we will see in the succeeding books about the kings of Israel is that all the power given to them by God went straight to their heads.
We too have been given immense power by God, the freedom to do whatever we want. For most of us who live in a democratic regime, we have literal freedom of choice but the freedom from the slavery of sins is even sweeter. Through grace, we have been given the right to call ourselves the children of God, a title higher than that of any prince of this world. How we use that privilege is up to us. Do we use it to be one with God and allow Him to lead our lives or like the kings of Israel do we let it go to our heads and start fulfilling our heart’s desires?
Even when death is near him, rather than repenting, Saul was worried about his mortal body being exploited by the Philistines. Many Christians believe that they can live their lives in pursuit of their desires, and only call on the name of the Lord during their final breath and be magically saved. Hollywood movies like the original Titanic, depict drowning passengers who for sure knew that they would not survive, singing hymns and praying to at least save their souls from drowning. If Saul’s life teaches us something, it is that people don’t change their stripes. How we lived our lives, will definitely influence what we prioritise at the time of our demise. In the end, we all are put on this earth only for a finite amount of time and each one of us will be answerable for our own actions. Let us learn from Israel’s mistakes and allow God to take complete control of our lives.
30:6 – How can David’s loyal men turn on him so quickly?
30:26 – Why is David sending tribute to the elders of Judah?
31:4 – Why does Saul prefer to die this way?
31:13 – What can we learn from the life of Saul?