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The Tragedy on Mount Gilboa

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

“They cut off (Saul’s) head and stripped off his armor . . . They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.”

--I Samuel 31:9-10

Before and After. Quite a contrast! Before: Saul—handsome, taller than all the men around him, anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel, and God’s choice to rescue the Israelites from the Philistines. (I Samuel 9:2, 16) After: Saul—mortally wounded on Mount Gilboa, takes his life, beheaded and humiliated by those same Philistines. How could that which had begun so well end so badly? Lives that veer off course usually do so incrementally, sometimes so imperceptibly that the deviation is difficult to detect. The choices Saul made are lessons of what to avoid if we want to fruitfully fulfill the purposes God has planned for us.

A large and powerful Philistine army assembled to fight the Israelites in response to a raid carried out by Saul’s son, Jonathan. Saul summoned the Israelites to join him at Gilgal. Samuel had told Saul to wait on him at Gilgal; the prophet/priest promised that he would arrive at an appointed time to offer the proper sacrifice ahead of the battle to seek the Lord’s favor. As time passed, in the face of their ferocious opponent, the Israelite troops began to melt away in fear. Saul decided he could wait no longer and offered the sacrifice himself, a function, as king, that he was not allowed perform. Out of panic and evaluating the circumstances only on the basis of what he could see, Saul chose not to wait on the Lord. When confronted by Samuel, Saul made excuses based on his emotions and blamed the prophet for his tardiness. Everything but the appropriate repentance. Saul demonstrated that He was not a man after God’s own heart, so the Lord would send Samuel to look for a replacement. (I Samuel 13:1-14)

Later, in the face of a retreating Philistine army, and perhaps out of embarrassment over what had happened at Gilgal, Saul made a rash oath binding his own troops to fast from food while they pursued the Philistines. Apparently he wanted a singular, militaristic focus among his men without the distraction of lunch. The Israelite soldiers “were under distress” due to Saul’s impulsive, unnecessary and arrogant command. Saul nearly executed his own son, Jonathan, who had not heard about his father’s legalistic demand before he tasted a bit of honey during the battle. Jonathan recognized that his father’s oath had made trouble for all of Israel. All of Israel reciprocated by insisting that the life of Jonathan be spared. (I Samuel 14:24-45)

Saul’s disobedience continued and expanded. In the next chapter of I Samuel, Samuel told him to attack the Amalekites, a particularly evil nemesis of the Israelites dating all the way back to their exodus from Egypt and their subsequent wanderings in the wilderness. The Lord told Moses to write down on a scroll that He would blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. (Exodus 17:14). In the Scripture, the war on the Amalekites becomes a picture of the continual battle every believer fights against their own sin nature. Indeed, Moses declared that the Lord would continue to be at war with the Amalekites from generation to generation. (Exodus 17:16) The Lord insisted that the Amalekites be fully and totally destroyed; the defeat of evil and sin is serious business. The prophet relayed the message to the king—no compromise!

Therefore, imagine Samuel’s surprise and dismay when he found the king of the Amalekites, Agag, as well as the best of the enemy’s livestock, still alive when he arrived at the Israelite camp after the battle. Saul and his men had killed all that was “despised and weak” but had saved for themselves “everything that was good.” (I Samuel 15:9) Preserving the choicest cattle and sheep transparently displayed the greed of Saul, but what about Agag? Maybe Saul wanted to hobnob with royalty, even if his fellow monarch was a dedicated enemy of the Lord. Or maybe Saul thought he would do the “loving,” dare I say progressive, thing and spare Agag’s life. After all, there had been enough killing that day already. When Samuel arrived, Saul, apparently without any remorse, “blessed” the prophet with a superficial, spiritually inauthentic greeting. The man was so dead to his own conscience that he didn’t even recognize his sin. Incredibly, Saul told Samuel he had obeyed the Lord; he claimed disingenuously that the animals were spared to offer sacrifices for worship. Samuel’s response—to obey is better than sacrifice. Doing what the Lord says to do in the first place is always preferable to telling Him we are sorry that we didn’t. (I Samuel 15:10-22)

At this point, Saul’s life careened out of control. Rather than challenging a gigantic Philistine champion himself, a cowardly king sent a shepherd boy out to do the dirty work instead. Saul had once, long ago, defeated the Ammonites with great passion because they had humiliated the Israelites. (I Samuel 11:6, 11) Now he and his troops were quaking in fear as Goliath mocked the Lord day after day. Pathetically, rather than obeying the Lord himself, Saul tried to dress David in his own armor—obedience by proxy I guess. As David’s fame spread, Saul carried out a personal vendetta to kill the man God had clearly selected as his successor. Finally, at the end of the greased rope of sin, Saul consulted a medium for advice rather than the Lord, an action anathema to the faith of the people he was supposed to lead. (I Samuel 28:8)

Let’s review. Saul, 1) refused to wait on the Lord and acted presumptuously; 2) when confronted with his disobedience, justified himself and blamed others; 3) unduly burdened others with impulsive and legalistic demands issuing from selfish arrogance rather than divine direction; 4) failed to obey the Lord fully out of his own sensibilities and greed, believing he knew better than God what was right—and then lied about it; 5) stood by and watched someone else obey and battle the evil he should have confronted himself; and 6) resorted to the occult and divination for guidance rather than seeking the Lord. That is what led to the tragedy on Mount Gilboa. When the new king, David, heard about what had happened, he cursed Mount Gilboa, praying it would never receive moisture needed to produce vegetation. (II Samuel 1:21) The picture above shows the power of that curse. Repeating the mistakes of Saul in our lives would produce a similar lack of fruitfulness.

Heavenly Father, the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church that the stories of the Old Testament were meant as “examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” (I Corinthians 10:6) Help us not to repeat the mistakes of King Saul. At times, we do set our hearts on selfish, even evil things. When that happens, keep us undeceived. Show us what is happening and help us to turn and go in the other direction. We want our lives to honor You and to encourage others to follow You. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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