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Deeper Commentary

1Sa 31:1 Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell down slain on Mount Gilboa-
It is really stressed that Saul and Jonathan "fell" on Gilboa (1 Sam. 31:1,8; 2 Sam. 1:10,12,19,25,27), using a Hebrew word which is often associated with spiritual falling. The fact that "the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons" (1 Sam. 31:2) gives the impression of them fleeing from the Philistine soldiers. This sends the mind back to the Law's warning that an apostate Israel would flee before their enemies (Dt. 28:25). Saul and Jonathan are described in terms representative of apostate Israel; see Am. 2:14,15; Micah 1 and 2 and expositions there. But the fall of Israel was due to the fall of Saul (see on 1 Sam. 28:19); instead of being the king who led to victory as Israel had hoped and as God had enabled, he led to shame and defeat.

1Sa 31:2 The Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul-
1 Sam. 31:2; 1 Chron. 10:2 read "Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua", whereas 1 Sam. 14:49 has "Jonathan, Ishvi and Malchishua". "Ishvi" may be another name for Abinadab; or we may note that the word means "and the second...", which would make sense in 1 Sam. 14:49. The genealogies of 1 Chron. 8:33; 9:39 also mention Esh-Baal or Ishbosheth; perhaps his name mentioning the "Baal" compound was the reason for its exclusion. Having such a name reflects upon Saul's lack of total devotion to Yahweh.

1Sa 31:3 The battle went badly against Saul, the archers overtook him and wounded him badly-
This was all such a reversal of fortunes. When the Philistines stopped the Israelites from having metal weapons, they honed their skills as slingers and archers. But now it was Philistine archers who wounded Saul.

1Sa 31:4 Then Saul said to his armour bearer, Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through and abuse me!-
"Lest they mock / abuse me" were to be the very words of Zedekiah (Jer. 38:19). The message for the exiles was that their leadership had indeed acted and been judged as Saul, but there was hope for restoration in a revived David figure.

But his armour bearer would not, for he was respectful. Therefore Saul took his sword and fell on it-
This man, although close to Saul, had been influenced by the spirit of David who would not lift up his hand against Yahweh's anointed. He may well have been near Saul on the two occasions David had come close to him and had chosen not to slay him. We learn from this that there may be people who think rightly in positions we would not imagine.

1Sa 31:5 When his armour bearer saw that Saul was dead, he likewise fell on his sword and died with him-
Fair attention is given to this man. As noted on :4, he was like Jonathan and many, in that his loyalties were divided. He was personally loyal to Saul, feeling that Saul's death was his death; and yet also loyal to the spirit of David, in that he would not slay Yahweh's anointed, and respected him as that right up to Saul's hopeless end. We may well meet him in God's Kingdom.

1Sa 31:6 So Saul died, and his three sons and his armour bearer and all his men, that same day together-
To all die on the same day was tragic; and recalls the deaths of Eli and his sons at the hands of the Philistines. They died in fulfilment of prophecies that they must be replaced by a faithful priest, of whom Samuel was a potential fulfilment. The situation with the deaths of Saul and his sons was so similar. We see the same Divine hand at work.  

"Many of the people" (2 Sam. 1:4) is no contradiction with 1 Sam. 31:6, where “all his men” refers to Saul’s immediate body-guard.

1Sa 31:7 When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook their cities and fled, and the Philistines came and lived in them-
The valley of Jezreel is in view; it was the most fertile part of Israel. The translation may be better "on the side of the valley". The forsaken cities appear to apply only to that valley in 1 Chron. 10:7. "Beyond the Jordan" may mean 'on the river banks'. There is little archaeological evidence that the Philistines possessed the territory east of Jordan for very long. Soon after this, Abner proclaimed Ishbosheth as king at Mahanaim, about twenty miles east of the Jordan (2 Sam. 2:8). So these gains of the Philistines were short-lived, and they lacked the numbers of population to really settle all this territory. But the impression is given of a total Philistine victory in the north of Israel.

1Sa 31:8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa-
The fact this was done the next day suggests the battle continued into the late evening, with Saul fighting literally to the end.

1Sa 31:9 They cut off his head, stripped off his armour and sent into the land of the Philistines all around to carry the news to the house of their idols and to the people-
This may well have been to allude to what David had done to Goliath many years before, placing his armour in the tabernacle; the sting of which remained with them. But the record mocks how they had to take the news to their idols; unlike Yahweh who sees and knows all things, and even before they happen.

We note they stripped his armour. His crown and bracelet was taken by the Amalekite looter whom we learn of in 2 Sam. 1. The man came to spoil the slain bodies, and finding the crown and bracelet, took them to David, hoping for a reward.

1Sa 31:10 They put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan-
1 Chron. 10:10 says that they fastened the head of Saul in Dagon's temple. 1 Chron. 10:12 adds the detail that the bodies of his sons were likewise fastened to the wall. Herodotus writes of a great temple to Venus in Ashkelon.

1Sa 31:11 When the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul-
They had been saved by Saul in 1 Sam. 11, maybe 40 years before (Acts 13:21). They had total loyalty to Saul even now at the end, when surely it was clear that David was the king of God's choice and Saul had sinned and failed. Perhaps they set a good example of appreciating the good a man once did or taught, even if in later life he turned away from God. As explained on 1 Sam. 30:23, this was how David treated Saul.

1Sa 31:12 all the valiant men arose and travelled all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth Shan, and they went to Jabesh and burnt them there-
Cremation was not common amongst the Jews, but perhaps they did this lest his body be abused further, seeing that they were under Philistine domination.

1Sa 31:13 They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days
We recall how it was beneath a tamarisk tree that Saul had ordered the massacre of the priests of Nob (1 Sam. 22:6). Now it is his bones which are beneath such a tree.