1 Samuel 31 contains Saul’s final act. The irony is clear. The man who towered head and shoulders over his contemporaries (1 Sam 9:2) is quite literally cut down to size as his head is removed from his shoulders.
The regal first king of Israel is killed and his body is shamefully violated. His line is extinguished. And all along, the one warrior who could have helped him wasn’t there directly because of Saul’s previous attempts to murder him as a rival. The enemy King who had accepted David and protected him now turns on David’s people.
The life of Saul is a terrible warning for any leader. God raises leaders up. He also brings them down. It’s often easy to find all kinds of other excuses, but ultimately, when a leader is no longer protected by God, the vultures will gather.
God is not impressed with human might. He is not impressed with popularity. He’s not impressed with gifting. He is looking for character. Saul’s life was weighed in the balance and found wanting.
This passage is one of few mentions in the Bible of suicide. It is not seen here as an honorable way out. Saul’s request for euthanasia or “mercy killing” is turned down because his servant feared committing such a sin. Falling on his own sword is a cowardly act. When we talk about suicide it is important that we don’t inadvertently glorify it. Neither must we demonize it because suicide is not the unforgivable sin. There is no evidence that Saul’s suicide was the product of mental illness, which would have made it more understandable. Instead it was the final act of a man who had long since lost his faith, and was hence without hope.
More posts about suicide
The passage is also one of the few mentions of cremation in Scripture. The people rescue Saul’s body from desecration and the burning is seen as a way of restoring honor, and preventing future public display. Although burial has always been the most common way Christians dispose of their dead, there is nothing in the Bible that precludes cremation as an alternative.
This tragic story concludes 1 Samuel. But it doesn’t conclude God’s dealings with his people. As one leader leaves, another is being prepared to enter. We will take up the story of King David in the new year and continue to look for more leadership lessons together.
Some of the lessons of Saul’s life:
- What kind of leader will you be?
- You can only lead people to the extent they want to be led – 1 Samuel 8
- Why cessationists are wrong about prophecy
- What does “The Lord was with him” mean?
- How will you react when others do well: selfish jealousy or selfless love?
- What kind of leader should we choose?
- Eight marks of a leader in terminal decline
- Marks of an unwise, selfish leader (1 Samuel 14)
- Being honest about glitches in the Bible’s text
- Leaders: it’s not so much about how you start, but how you finish
- David and Saul: No good deed goes unpunished
- Returning good for evil even when a relationship is beyond repair
- There is nothing sadder than a rudderless leader