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The God of Every Ending (I Samuel 31:1-13)

November 27, 2011 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: Crying for a King (Samuel)

Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 31:1–31:13

Crying for a King

The God of Every Ending

I Samuel 31:1-13

November 27th, 2011

Way of Grace Church

I. Starting with Endings

We don’t generally like endings, do we?

We don’t like the end of our vacation. We don’t like the end of the ice cream container. We don’t like the end of our credit limit. We don’t like the end of nice weather. We don’t like the end of a meaningful relationship or a fulfilling job.

Endings are usually at the end of our list of likes.

But this morning, we want to affirm a very simple fact: the God of the Bible is the God of every ending. There is no ending which God is not over. There is no ending outside of God’s purposes.

Turn with me to the end of the book of I Samuel: I Samuel 31.

II. The Passage: “Thus Saul Died” (31:1-13)

As we look one last time at the book of I Samuel, let’s begin with just the first verse of this chapter, I Samuel 31:1.

A. The End of the Battle (31:1)

This is what we read in verse 1:

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.

Now, if this was the last few minutes of an hour-long read through of I Samuel, we would immediately remember that the battle described here is the very same battle that has been talked about since the opening verses of chapter 28.

This is the battle David was almost pulled into…as a Philistine soldier (!)…because of his life of lies living among the Philistines. This is the battle that, on its eve, had Saul quaking in his sandals and violating God’s law in order to seek guidance from Samuel’s ghost. This is the battle that David avoided when the Philistine commanders discovered him and his men among their ranks…and wisely sent them packing.

And as we read here, this is the battle in which Israel was trounced by the Philistine armies. Israel’s greatest warriors were either fleeing in defeat or falling in death.

B. The End of Saul (31:2-6)

But verse 1 is just a general summary. Look at how verses 2-6 ‘zoom in’ on some of the tragic details of this tragic battle. Verse 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.

The first specific casualty we learn about in this chapter is a man any righteous reader would prayerfully hope was spared. But no, Jonathan, the prince of Israel, is dead. The young man who renounced any claim on the throne when he made a covenant with David, the young man who supported David in spite of his father’s murderous intentions, the young man who assured David in chapter 23 with these words, “You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you.”…this young man, along with two of his brothers, has been killed.

But their father is still alive. Verse 3 tells us that the Saul had been badly wounded by the Philistine archers, probably as he and his men tried to move to higher ground.

Unable to get away, we read here that Saul is scared of what the Philistines might do to him if they capture him alive. But when Saul fails to convince his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery, he does the job himself by falling on his sword. Saul dies in the same way he lived: ruled by fear. There is nothing noble about Saul’s death.

It’s important to note that even here, even in his final moments, even in a completely hopeless situation, even now Saul does not cry out to God in humility and faith. He once again takes matters into his own hands.

C. The End of Stability (31:7)

But look at the ripple effects of this defeat and Saul’s death. Verse 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.

Mount Gilboa is about 50 miles north of Jerusalem and just 7-8 miles west of the Jordan River. It lies on the south west side of the Jezreel Valley. This was a very important strip of flatland because it stretched from the Mediterranean coast, all the way to the Jordan River.

So as we see here, Saul’s defeat, the army’s defeat means instability for this entire region. People abandon their homes as the Philistines swept over the area. Israel is now cut into two parts, with the Philistines controlling the middle.

The king for whom the people demanded, this king who was supposed to deliver them from all their enemies, specifically the Philistines (according to 9:16), this king is now dead, and the land is worse off than before.

D. The End of Honor (31:8-10)

As the focus returns to the battlefield in verses 8-10, we discover that the Philistines are not finished with their campaign of destruction. Look at verse 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.

So when the Philistines discover the bodies of Saul and his sons, they are quick to turn these corpses into props for their propoganda campaign. But the propoganda is not simply focused on exalting the Philistine war machine, or inspiring more fear in their enemies. It's also about exalting the gods of the Philistines.

You see, when the Philistines cut off Saul's head (just as David had done to Goliath), and then stuck his body and the bodies of his sons on the wall of a local village, they were robbing Israel of any and all royal honor. They were heaping disgrace upon Saul's house and upon God's people.

But worse than that, when the Philistines put his armor in the temple of their goddesses, and when, as I Chronicles 10:10 reports, they put Saul's head in the temple of their god Dagon, they were heaping disgrace on God himself. They were declaring that Yahweh, the God of Israel had been defeated by their gods.

And so Saul's failures, and Saul's defeat, have not only disastrously impaced God's people, but also God's reputation. Saul has given the enemies of Israel an opportunity to mock the living God.

E. The End of Obligation (31:11-13)

But look at how this account ends in verses 11-13. Verse 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.

In one sense, these final verses represent a final note of grace in Saul's life. God had not allowed Saul's (or Jonathan's) body to hang indefinitely in shame. God has graciously provided some closure here.

But these aren't just any 'remains-rescuers'. The town mentioned in verse 11 is extremely significant: Jabesh-gilead. The final verse of I Samuel, here at the end of Saul's military leadership, are actually a closing 'bookend' that connects us back to I Samuel 11 and the beginning of Saul's military leadership.

You may remember that in I Samuel 11, Saul's first victory as God's newly anointed king was the rescue of this town, Jabesh-gilead, from the ruthless Nahash the Ammonite. The town had seven days to find a deliverer before Nahash gouged out everyone's right eye. And so as word of Saul's death AND disgrace reach the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, they know they must fulfill an obligation to Saul, the man who rescued them so many years earlier.

And just as Nahash gave them seven days to find a deliverer, the men of Jabesh-gilead mourn for Saul and his sons for the same amount of time, seven days.

And so, here at the end of I Samuel, Saul is dead. Jonathan is dead. Israel is in turmoil. Yahweh's name is profaned among the nations. But thankfully, we know that even though this is the final chapter of this book, it isn't the final chapter of this story.

III. The Two-Sided Coin of God’s Endings

In the Hebrew Bible, Samuel is one long book. In our Bibles we have two books: First and Second Samuel. That division was made when the the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into the Greek language more than 200 years before Christ.

But if we had to split this book in two, I don't think there is a better place to insert another ending. I say that because this is such a significant ending. Remember what we talked about at the outset of our time this morning? “The God of the Bible is the God of every ending. There is no ending which God is not over. There is no ending outside of God’s purposes.”

And even though God is not mentioned in this chapter, everything we've seen from the very first verse of I Samuel tells us that God is directly at work in the ending, or should I say, endings (!) we discover here in I Samuel 31. In fact there are a couple verses in I Samuel that explicitly affirm this same point.

First, what we read here in I Samuel 31 is the very thing previously predicted by Samuel's spirit in I Samuel 28:19...”Moreover, the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

The endings we discover in I Samuel 31, Saul's ending, Jonathan's ending, the army’s ending, all of them are examples of God's faithfulness to His word; in this case, to God's word of judgment. Not only did Saul reject God's word on so many occasions, but in I Samuel 28 he directly violated God's prohibition in Leviticus 20:6...If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.

God did just that when Saul foolishly sought guidance from the ghost of Samuel.

This is the first of two very important lessons God has given us in I Samuel 31: When we resist God's word, when we choose to harden ourselves, when we continue down that path of sin, that path we know is wrong, when we regularly and deliberately resist and deaden ourselves to the voice of conviction, there will always be an end… and the end will be one of justice and not mercy.

We could say that Saul’s death reminds us that God is true to His word, that He will surely judge those who respond to Him with lives of resistance and rejection. Though the world would like to dismiss those ideas and talk about how a loving God could never punish us, we know that God is perfectly just. That means He will and must deal with all sin.

Listen to how the author of the book of Hebrews describes, for those who profess faith in Christ, the seriousness of this kind of resistance and rejection:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, [27] but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. [28] Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [29] How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
(Hebrews 10:26-31)

You see, it isn't that God rejects Christians who are failures. No, the truth is that God's work never fails in those who are truly Christians. God always completes the good work He begins in any heart. And that doesn't mean there are not struggles in the Christian life. But those who continue to resist and reject Christ and His word simply prove they never really knew Him to begin with. Their condemnation is simply deepened by their explicit knowledge of the truth. God will sort out the goats from the sheep.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot play games with sin. We cannot toy with or flirt with sin. We can rationalize or minimize our yielding to temptation. And we cannot use God's grace as some kind of license to treat sin softly. As Titus 2:11, 12 reminds us, For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, [12] training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions...

Wherever we stand with God, Saul is an important warning for all of us.

But I Samuel 31 is like a two sided coin: when we consider everything we’ve read since chapter 18, we realize that the end of Saul in accordance with God’s judgment is also the end of David’s exile. The man who, for so many years, had made David’s life a living hell, the man who issued David’s death sentence, the man who never relented, even when David spared his life…twice (!), this man, Saul, was now dead.

David knew this day was coming. He told one of his men this very thing I Samuel 26: “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the LORD's anointed and be guiltless?” [10] And David said, “As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish. (I Samuel 26:9, 10)

Even though he wavered at times, David knew deep down that God would one day remove Saul from the scene. He knew that God had anointed him as the new king. He believed what Abigail had reminded him of back in chapter 25:

If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the LORD your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. (I Samuel 25:29)

Here is the second of the two lessons God has given us in this chapter: we could say that Saul’s death reminds us that God is true to His word, that He has surely decreed an end to our seasons of suffering.

Just as David must have felt that Saul’s persecution would never end, we can also find ourselves in time of suffering and struggle and pain that seem to go on, and on, and on. We might feel like using David’s words in Psalm 22 to cry out to God: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? [2] O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Ps. 22:1-2)

But God will remove our ‘Saul’, whatever that circumstance might be. Our suffering will not ultimately last. In HIS timing and according to HIS means, God will bring an end to our struggle. Doesn’t that encourage you? Just as God chose David to be His, so too Christians are chosen by the grace of God. And just as God promised to raise David up at the proper time, so too will God do that in our lives.

As the Apostle Paul wrote: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… (II Corinthians 4:16-17)

Your season of suffering may end in days, or weeks, or maybe months or years…your season of suffering may end when God takes away your ‘Saul’ or when He takes you from this world. However it happens, God has surely decreed an end. You see, He is the God of every ending.

What should we do in the meantime, before our ‘I Samuel 31’ comes to pass? We should do what David did: I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. [2] He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. [3] He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. [4] Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust… (Psalm 40:1-4a)

In all of these things, we know our ultimate confidence is not in the story of the anointed king who died in battle and was shamefully hung on an Israelite wall. No, our confidence is in the story of the anointed king who was shamefully hung on a Roman cross and then died in the greatest battle ever fought.

Strangely, what both of these kings had in common was that they were forsaken by God. Saul was forsaken because of his sin. But Jesus was forsaken, on the cross, because of our sin. As Paul wrote: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:21)

Brothers and sisters, friends, the certainty of God’s word, whether in our judgment or our deliverance, that certainty is sealed by the blood Jesus Christ. Our indifference, our rejection of Jesus will bring us, like Saul, to an ending marked by judgment. But our faith in Jesus and God’s free gift through Him will bring us through many ‘endings’ and finally to an ending marked by deliverance.

But when we speak about “endings”, God’s word must always qualify that discussion with the reality of eternity. Our ‘ending’ here simply opens the door for an experience in which there is no ending, whether that be in suffering away from God’s presence, or absolute joy in God’s presence.

I like the words of Winston Churchill when he spoke about news of a critical Allied victory in North Africa. He said: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” My death, your death will be end of the beginning of your eternal experience.

I Samuel 31 is either God’s warning to you this morning, or it is His message of comfort…His call to persevere. Wait patiently for the Lord. Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust. Remember Jesus Christ.