1 Samuel 31:1-13 – Warning Signs from a Tragic Life

The Philistines made war on Israel. The men of Israel were in full retreat from the Philistines, falling left and right, wounded on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines caught up with Saul and his sons. They killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua, Saul’s sons.

The battle was hot and heavy around Saul. The archers got his range and wounded him badly. Saul said to his weapon bearer, “Draw your sword and put me out of my misery, lest these pagan pigs come and make a game out of killing me.”

But his weapon bearer wouldn’t do it. He was terrified. So, Saul took the sword himself and fell on it. When the weapon bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So, Saul, his three sons, and his weapon bearer—the men closest to him—died together that day.

When the Israelites in the valley opposite and those on the other side of the Jordan saw that their army was in full retreat and that Saul and his sons were dead, they left their cities and ran for their lives. The Philistines moved in and occupied the sites.

The next day, when the Philistines came to rob the dead, they found Saul and his three sons dead on Mount Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head and stripped off his armor. Then they spread the good news all through Philistine country in the shrines of their idols and among the people. They displayed his armor in the shrine of the Ashtoreth. They nailed his corpse to the wall at Beth Shan.

The people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul. Their valiant men sprang into action. They traveled all night, took the corpses of Saul and his three sons from the wall at Beth Shan, and carried them back to Jabesh and burned off the flesh. They then buried the bones under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted in mourning for seven days. (The Message)

Life is a process. Rarely does anything happen instantly. Human growth, maturation, life, and death unfold over years. So, a major life issue is attending to what process are we given to – a process which allows for human thriving – or a process that causes a failure to thrive.

King Saul sadly gave himself to a downward spiral of jealousy, paranoia, and poor decisions. His end was tragic. Yet perhaps we might learn some lessons in the form of warnings. Let’s consider the life of Saul as a cautionary tale, heeding us to avoid his foibles and pitfalls.

Unfortunately, Saul made deliberate choices in his life which led to his ignominious death. In fact, Scripture makes it plain that Saul died because of unfaithfulness:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord. So, the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NIV)

Premeditated, deliberate, conscious wrongdoing can only expect a predictable process of moral failure and divine judgment. Consider some observations from Saul’s life so that we will be kept from going down his path of destruction:

  • Saul made decisions which solely benefited himself, and not the entire community. He deliberately disobeyed orders from the prophet Samuel and tried to justify his behavior with a godly veneer (1 Samuel 13:1-14; 15:1-26). Later, King David engaged in some deliberate acts of sin and disobedience. Yet, David did not share Saul’s outcome because he humbled himself before God, admitted his guilt, and turned away from disobedience (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There always remains the opportunity to turn to God, as long as we are alive.
  • Saul never owned his bad decisions, and it led to his paranoia and warped thinking. Saul kept believing he was okay – and that everyone else was wrong or against him. If we ever get to the point of living with our sin as if it’s acceptable, then we need a prophet to come along and show us the error of our ways and beliefs. Saul had a prophet in his life: Samuel, who was one of the best. Yet, Saul often altered Samuel’s advice or dispensed with it altogether.
  • Saul’s wrongdoing did not always lead to immediate negative consequences. That is the typical nature of sin. It bites, but the pain isn’t felt until later. Saul was rejected by God as king. In reality, this rejection did not occur until Saul’s death. Whenever Saul made poor decisions, he felt gratification in the immediate moment. Later, however, he was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). Conversely, the righteous person understands the principle of delayed gratification.
  • It wasn’t just Saul who suffered because of his own jealousy and paranoia. Other people suffered, as well. David clearly suffered emotional and spiritual duress because of Saul’s jealousy. The priests and the people of Nob were mercilessly murdered because of Saul’s paranoia (1 Samuel 22:6-19). We must be quite careful to avoid being shortsighted about our decisions. Just because we might neither anticipate nor see any negative consequences to others doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Sin destroys, period, whether we know it, or not.
  • Saul’s identity and worth as a person was dependent on his title and position as king. So, when that position was threatened, Saul thought his very personhood was in grave danger. The truth is that our worth as humans is not tied to whether we have a lofty position, or a particular pedigree. Our dignity as people is forever tethered to bearing the divine image.

A healthy life process of decision-making which includes consulting wise voices and collaborating with people of integrity will surely result in good things, not bad. So, let us walk in the narrow path of wisdom, while continually forsaking the broad road that leads to destruction.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

*Above: woodcut of King Saul’s death by George Wigland, 1860

1 Samuel 23:14-18 – Encouraging Others in Hard Times

David stayed in hideouts in the hill country of Ziph Desert. Saul kept searching, but God never let Saul catch him.

One time, David was at Horesh in Ziph Desert. He was afraid because Saul had come to the area to kill him. But Jonathan went to see David, and God helped him encourage David. “Don’t be afraid,” Jonathan said. “My father Saul will never get his hands on you. In fact, you’re going to be the next king of Israel, and I’ll be your highest official. Even my father knows it’s true.”

They both promised the Lord that they would always be loyal to each other. Then Jonathan went home, but David stayed at Horesh. (Contemporary English Version)

Encouraging with Help

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell.

“I will show you Hell,” said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room containing a group of famished, desperate people sitting around a large, circular table. In the center of the table rested an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. Yet no one ate.

Each diner at the table held a very long-handled spoon – long enough to reach the pot and scoop up a spoonful of stew, but too long to get the food into one’s mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible and bowed his head in compassion.

“Now I will show you Heaven,” said the Lord, and they entered another room, identical to the first – same large, round table, same enormous pot of stew, same long-handled spoons. Yet there was gaiety in the air; everyone appeared well nourished, plump, and exuberant.

The rabbi could not understand and looked to the Lord. “It is simple,” said the Lord, “but it requires a certain skill. You see, the people in this room have learned to feed each other!”

We as humans are hard-wired for community. Ideally, we seamlessly move between being providers of help and receivers of help. A healthy life is a balanced life consisting of consistent rhythms of giving and receiving. And where we are all participating together, there is Heaven.

Encouraging through Friendship

For sure, there will be times we become discouraged. To remain optimistic and encouraged, all the time, is difficult. We need help to keep going and not give up hope. Sometimes we just need a darned good friend.

David, a man who seemed fearless, became afraid. And understandably so. I can only imagine what it would be like to be hyper-vigilant, too scared to shut your eyes and go to sleep, wondering if this might be your last day or night on earth. It’s one thing to die. It’s altogether another thing to be hunted like an animal so that another person can snuff out your life.

Of course, David was scared. And in this state of fright, Jonathan enters. The friend par excellence. True friendship is resilient and reliable. Jonathan did what a loyal friend does: encourage. David was emotionally drained and spiritually weak. So, Jonathan came to David’s side, was present with him, and helped him find his faith and strength in God again.

Encouraging by Affirmation

The helpful encouragement came in the form of truth and affirmation. Those are two indispensable elements to encouragement. Real friendship is built upon the solid foundation of truth, with continual overtures of affirming loyalty and commitment.

Two peas in a pod. Fits like a hand in a glove. Littermates. Cut from the same cloth. Whichever way you choose to say it, Jonathan was the warm gravy to David’s cold mashed potatoes. There was no way Jonathan was going to sit on the sidelines, knowing his best friend was on the run from danger. He proactively took action and was there to help feed David when there was nothing but a long-handled spoon to eat from.

Take note of the four encouraging and affirming truths Jonathan told David to help encourage him and strengthen his faith:

  1. Saul will not find you, despite his paranoid persistence. The sovereign God is in control – not King Saul. Your capture is not in the Lord’s plan.
  2. You will be king. You have been anointed as such. It will come.
  3. I will be second to you. I am with you, all the way. I am your humble servant. I am your faithful friend.
  4. Saul himself knows the truth, which is why he’s so zealous to take you out.

Through Jonathan’s encouragement, David gained newfound optimism, fresh hope, with affirmation and confirmation of the truth. And David needed this to face the upcoming cat and mouse games he would be playing with Saul.

Encouraging the Truth

In the New Testament, the verse, Romans 8:28, is still true. Yes, it gets overused by some as a mere platitude which sometimes invalidates a person’s experience and emotions. Yet, it remains nonetheless true:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Romans 8:28, NLT

The year, 2020, was a kick in the pants for a lot of people. For some, it felt like the disease was hunting them down, trying to take their life. And it did, as of this writing, for 3.5 million people worldwide. The economic and social toll is inestimable. Add to this grim reality that all the socio-economic problems, political issues, and other diseases and disasters of the world have continued, unabated, throughout the pandemic.

It can be difficult to see how any of this could work for good. Yet, this is when friendship is found to be at its best – giving incredible encouragement while in the teeth of terrible circumstances.

Ultimately, death and disease do not have the last word. No matter what happens, we are and will remain children of the King. Jesus steps in and calls us “friend,” acting on our behalf. And God’s Spirit is forever with us, vigilant to support us when we can no longer stand.

God of all encouragement, when evil darkens our world, give us light. When despair numbs our souls, give us hope. When we stumble and fall, lift us up. When doubts assail us, give us faith. When nothing seems sure, give us trust. When ideals fade, give us vision. When we lose our way, be our guide! May you help us find serenity in your presence, and purpose in doing your will. Amen.

1 Samuel 20:1-27-42 – A Relationship Sustained in Truth

But the next day, the second day of the month, David’s place was empty again. Then Saul said to his son Jonathan, “Why hasn’t the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today?”

Jonathan answered, “David earnestly asked me for permission to go to Bethlehem. He said, ‘Let me go, because our family is observing a sacrifice in the town and my brother has ordered me to be there. If I have found favor in your eyes, let me get away to see my brothers.’ That is why he has not come to the king’s table.”

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send someone to bring him to me, for he must die!”

“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David.

Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the feast he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David.

In the morning Jonathan went out to the field for his meeting with David. He had a small boy with him, and he said to the boy, “Run and find the arrows I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. When the boy came to the place where Jonathan’s arrow had fallen, Jonathan called out after him, “Isn’t the arrow beyond you?” Then he shouted, “Hurry! Go quickly! Don’t stop!” The boy picked up the arrow and returned to his master. (The boy knew nothing about all this; only Jonathan and David knew.) Then Jonathan gave his weapons to the boy and said, “Go, carry them back to town.”

After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.

Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’” Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town. (New International Version)

“An acquaintance merely enjoys your company, a fair-weather companion flatters when all is well, a true friend has your best interests at heart and the pluck to tell you what you need to hear.”

E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly

Sometimes you think you know somebody, and you find out you really didn’t know them well at all. 

It even happens within families, not to mention churches. Jonathan, the warrior son of King Saul, had to come to grips with the fact that his father was going down a path to the dark side and becoming Darth Saul. 

Jonathan heard some hard truth from his best friend, David, about his father. David confronted Jonathan with the reality that Saul was trying to kill him. It was difficult to process such information. Yet, to Jonathan’s credit, he was open to the possibility of what David, a trusted and close friend, had to say.

David wisely did not show up for an appointed feast, knowing his life was at risk. Jonathan used the opportunity to find out if what David had said was true, or not. Furthermore, Jonathan and David together had developed a plan, in case King Saul had really turned to the dark side.

Relationships must be based upon truth. A true friend is willing to reprove and rebuke with care and grace. That friend will listen to the truth and is not concerned with trying to manipulate or take advantage of the relationship. 

Jonathan, as a person of integrity, was willing to find out the truth about his father. Once he determined the awful realization of his father’s true intentions, Jonathan was willing to adjust his life to fit the new information.

There is some high level relational work going on in this Old Testament lesson for today. It is tragic when people are willing to settle for superficial relationships. Building relational intimacy takes time and effort, the kind of work that both Jonathan and David were willing to put into their friendship. 

They found themselves in turbulent times, but the friends found their ultimate security in the Lord and continually reminded each other of God’s ability to sustain them. Jonathan and David truly had a model relationship for us all to emulate.

Sovereign God, you are supreme over all creation. May the glue of truth hold all of my relationships together. May they be centered fully and completely around the Lord Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Above icon of Jonathan and David painted by Br. Robert Lentz

1 Samuel 18:6-30 – Saul’s Deep Anxiety

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
    and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was incredibly angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.

The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand, and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul. So, he sent David away from him and gave him command over a thousand men, and David led the troops in their campaigns. In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him. When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David because he led them in their campaigns.

Saul said to David, “Here is my older daughter Merab. I will give her to you in marriage; only serve me bravely and fight the battles of the Lord.” For Saul said to himself, “I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that!”

But David said to Saul, “Who am I, and what is my family or my clan in Israel, that I should become the king’s son-in-law?” So, when the time came for Merab, Saul’s daughter, to be given to David, she was given in marriage to Adriel of Meholah.

Now Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. “I will give her to him,” he thought, “so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.” So, Saul said to David, “Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law.”

Then Saul ordered his attendants: “Speak to David privately and say, ‘Look, the king likes you, and his attendants all love you; now become his son-in-law.’”

They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”

When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.

When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So, before the allotted time elapsed, David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage.

When Saul realized that the Lord was with David and that his daughter Michal loved David, Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days.

The Philistine commanders continued to go out to battle, and as often as they did, David met with more success than the rest of Saul’s officers, and his name became well known. (New International Version)

Anxiety can warp our thinking, cause pain in our gut, and darken our heart. Maybe that statement seems a bit harsh. After all, everyone becomes anxious, at some time or another. Anxiety is endemic to the human experience; it is something we all have in common. Whenever anxiety takes root in the life of a person, it bears the fruit of irrational fear and deep insecurity. 

King Saul was jealous of David’s success in battle. Behind Saul’s personal anxiety was the concern that David was stealing the limelight. It made Saul angry, David getting all the attention. Since Saul was the leader in charge, he continually put David in overwhelming situations where it seemed likely he would fail. But instead of failure, David was wildly successful in everything he did. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson makes it clear David’s achievements were because the Lord was with him. This made Saul even more anxious and afraid, possessing malevolent motives behind everything he did toward David. Even though it might not have looked evil on the outside, in reality, the interior life of Saul was a mess. And it made him plain stupid.

When Saul observed God was with David, it only reinforced his fear and led him down a dark path. In contrast to Saul, David had godly character, developed in the lonely place of the pasture. It led him on a lighted trail toward the will of God.

Genuine integrity is always forged in the secret place where no one is looking. If we are merely concerned for outward performance and/or perfectionism, all sorts of anxieties can develop and twist our sense of reality. Yet, if we pay attention to the inner person, and allow God to create a deep faith within, then we can stand strong, even when there are those who have ill will against us.

Search me, O God, and know my heart.  Test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.  Amen.

*Above painting by Chinese artist He Qi

**Above statue of King Saul at the University of North Carolina Art Museum