GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
1 CHRONICLES 10:1-6
10:1 The Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from the Philistines and fell mortally wounded at Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines were closely pursuing Saul and his sons. They struck down Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-shua, the sons of Saul. 3 The attack against Saul was fierce. The archers found him and shot him, and he was in terrible pain from the arrows. 4 Then Saul said to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through so that these uncircumcised men do not come and abuse me.” But his armor bearer would not do it because he was too afraid. So Saul took a sword and fell on it. 5 When the armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died. 6 So Saul died, and his three sons, all his house, died together.
This passage is nearly identical with 1 Samuel 31:1-6. It seems abrupt to suddenly transfer our attention from long lists of names in the preceding genealogies suddenly into the heated excitement of a battle, but the goal of our author has been to show two things: The line of the Savior, which is about to come to the forefront with the reign of King David, and the true and only true worship of God, transfering from the ancient tabernacle into the temple, which will lead to the second temple in the lifetime of the writer.
The war against Philistia had dragged on now for more than fifty years. Samson had died in their hands a few years, perhaps, before Saul became king, and Israel had been fighting them most of the time during Saul’s forty-two years as king. Now an attack had surged against Saul personally on Mount Gilboa, “a range of barren hills on the eastern side of the Plain of Esdraelon.” Saul’s warriors fell dying of their wounds. Hollywood makes us think that men die instantly in war, which is not always true even in the age of bullets and bombs. But in the centuries of thrown rocks, shot arrows and edged weapons, many men died, but few died quickly. One after another, Saul’s sons fell. Saul thought back to his predecessor, the pretender-king Abimlech, whose armor-bearer had killed him to spare his reputation, but Saul’s own armor-bearer wouldn’t go through with it. Saul grabbed a sword and fell on it, which led the other man to do the same.
Our author writes that “all of Saul’s house” died with him there on the mountain. Of course, we know that Saul’s son Ishbosheth, about the same age as David, did not die there. He set himself up as a rival king to David, but Chronicles doesn’t even mention his name. While the phrase “all his house” is therefore awkward, it means that either (1) all of the men of Saul’s house who were with him died there, or (2) Saul’s whole house died there and soon after, since Ishbosheth’s opposition was short-lived. While Saul’s house fell, God’s kingdom will never fall.
We are left with two important questions here. First, did God set Saul up to fail? Second, what are we to make of a man put in place by God, who falls into unbelief and suicide?
God did not raise Saul up just so that Saul would fail. A simple way of looking at Saul’s kingship is to see that in order to raise up David as a mighty warrior and potential king is to place the boy David into the service of a reigning king. That does not mean Saul was doomed to failure and unbelief. Many of Judah’s great kings were also sons of great kings.
In 1 Samuel 15:35, we are told that the Lord “regretted” that he had made Saul king over Israel (KJV, “repented”). The verb naham means to be sorry or console, and is related to the name “Nahum” (consolation, comfort, Nahum 3:7). When God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king,” it is not on account of any failure on God’s part. We are told immediately and directly that it was because Saul turned his back from God, did not follow God, and did not carry out God’s words (1 Samuel 15:11). God did not talk about regretting this because he was ignorant of the outcome of the matter or that he changed his purpose in doing it. God’s emotion is due to the failure in Saul, not in God. Augustine says: “God does not repent as man does, for when we read that he repents [or “regrets”], a change of things is meant, though the foreknowledge of God remains unchanging.” By “things” Augustine means things both within Saul’s heart and actions in Saul’s life, and also things in the course of events that God will move in order to carry out his plans, despite the sins of men like Saul, “the simple changing,” explains Tertullian, “of a prior purpose which can be admitted without any blame.”
Saul’s suicide raises two questions, or perhaps only one. What happens when someone takes their own life? For Saul, this was a rejection of God. There are a handful of suicides among the Israelites in Scripture. Two men hang themselves: Ahithophel and Judas, and two or three with the sword: Abimelech (who begged to be run through after a woman dropped a millstone on his head, Judges 9:53-54), Saul, and Saul’s armor-bearer. These men gave up on God and gave up on God’s forgiveness. Judas, for example, “made Lent all about himself instead of all about what Jesus had come to do, even for him. And so in despair he lost grace by his own choice. In despair, a pain that he could not endure, he went to a pain far worse and a torment that will never end” (Deutschlander, On Giving Advice to God, Part 1 p. 164).
What about suicide in general? What about someone I’ve known, perhaps someone I’ve loved, who has taken their own life? In former times, it was usually said that suicide always meant damnation. There was a practice that those who had killed themselves could not be carried out of a house “over the threshold.” We don’t have a definitive passage about this, but of course the terrible reality is that death ends the time of grace for every person. For everyone, the very next event of any importance after death is judgment day: “It is appointed for people to die only once and after this comes the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The usual concern about suicide is that almost all forms of suicide (especially in this age of guns) do not leave room for repentance.
But we must look at the other side of that argument. Many forms of death, especially murder and accident, do not leave any room for repentance, either. We assume that the Christian lives in a constant state of repentance, but what about the Christian who is in the middle of a sin (such a speeding, swearing, lust, or greed) when they perish in some accident? Does faith not cover our sins? Does not baptism cover all sins, even a sin one dies in? Yes, baptism does. The issue with suicide is that it implies turning away from God’s grace. But not all who take their own lives are in their right minds. They may not truly wish to kill themselves, “but,” Luther said candidly, “they are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.” And the robber is, of course, the devil.
Luther was quick to add: “However, this ought not to be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter,” meaning that if people suspected they could “get away” with ending their lives with no repurcussions hereafter, they would give up on life’s hardships, and the number of suicides would or could rise to fearsome numbers. To return to Luther’s table comments: “It is not plain that their souls are [always] damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. If it were not for these examples, we would not fear God” (Table Talk, LW 54:29).
Death is a terrible, brutal blow, caused by the entrance of sin into the world. We must be vigilant, keeping watch over our own faith as well as the faith of our loved ones. We must remember and be comforted that our sins, as terrible as they are, are covered by the blood of Christ. This has already taken place: “He was handed over to death because of our trespasses and was raised to life because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). Do not despair! Brave heart! Be comforted! Do not ever think that the only way out of a terrible spot is to choose death by one’s own hand. For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We have a place with him forever. Trust in this and be glad; let your heavy heart rise up and float among the very clouds that await his return, for he will surely come back for us to bring us home to be with him.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota
God’s Word for You – 1 Chronicles 10:1-6 The death of Saul