It was a supreme act of generosity for David to mark the death of Saul with lyrical and exalted tributes: “ ‘The beauty of Israel is slain.… Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives.… How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” (2 Sam. 1:19–27). Saul, after all, had made shipwreck of his life and kingdom, and had sought to kill David. Of course, it was also an act of political wisdom for David, because he had to rule Saul’s kinsmen in the years to come. But it was not pragmatism that motivated him. On one level, his tribute anticipated the spirit of the later adage, “Say nothing but good of the dead.” The evil that men do always lives after them. We do well to be thankful for the smallest mercies, even in deeply flawed lives.
David, in any case, truly loved Jonathan and owed his life to him. He wept real tears and felt deep sadness over Jonathan’s death. David knew too much about the consequences of the visitations of this terrible “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26)—for both time and eternity—not to be moved by the pathos of its finality. In his poem, “Death the Leveller,” James Shirley (1596–1666) notes that “Sceptre and Crown must tumble down, and in the dust be equal made with the poor crooked scythe and spade.” Death is enough of a leveler to suggest some humility at the prospect of facing it and some sympathy for those who have passed that way.
Sin Kills People
The Lord is somewhat less sanguine than David in His assessment. Saul “died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance” (1 Chron. 10:13). God is saying that sin killed Saul.
Death is a challenge about which millions stick their heads in the sand. They attribute death to illness, injury, war, murderers, carelessness, weather, genes, upbringing and any number of specific causes—even “bad luck!” And so they fail to see the forest for the trees, and thereby sidestep the most important issue of all. Of course, we all the of something. But the invariable truth behind specific causes of death is the dismal reality of sin. Until and unless we grapple with that, we will never understand death, far less gain any victory over it, and we will also miss the real meaning and potential of human life and destiny.
The essential point, then, is that sin will kill us all as surely as it killed Saul. We may prefer not to think about this. Or we may be tempted to make comparisons between decent, not-so-bad, bad and worse sinners. This assumes that some people are good enough for us to say that whatever killed them, it was not sin. But there is no sneaking under God’s radar. Another Saul, whom God converted and called to be “the apostle to the Gentiles,” points out that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10, conflating Ps. 14:1–3; 53:1–3; Eccl. 7:20) and reminds us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We all have a Hebrews 9:27 rendezvous in our futures.
God Kills People
A visitor from space might conclude that we think of God as harmlessly non-judgmental. Scripture teaches otherwise. Even though Saul was shot through with arrows and fell on his own sword (1 Sam 31:3–4), we are told explicitly that God took his life: Saul “did not inquire of the Lord; therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David” (1 Chron. 10:14). Our times are in God’s hand and He is sovereign over the day of our death (Ps. 31:15; Eccl. 3:2; 8:8).
Perhaps this seems to you a rather morbid perspective. We prefer to think about being “spared” than about being “killed.” But “killed” is just where “spared” leaves off, and the real issue is not whether God takes someone’s life away, but whither He takes it, either to heaven or to hell. The fearful starkness of the chronicler’s language sounds a warning that poses the question, “Where will you spend eternity?” The cloud over Saul’s spiritual state calls every one of us to “number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). The Lord who killed Saul is not a passive spectator to the mundane means by which we pass into eternity to “give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5; cf., Matt. 12:36; Rom. 14:12; Heb. 13:17).
God Killed His Son
This would be dismally depressing but for the fact that God also killed His own Son. If we focus only on the instrumental causes of Jesus’death—the Jews, the Romans, our sins, crucifixion, spearing, dehydration, etc.—we miss the underlying truth that God killed Him, and that behind this lies the overarching love of God for sinners (John 3:16). God killed Jesus to save people from their sins.
In this light, death is not a leveler at all, but the rising and falling of those who, respectively, do or do not come to know Jesus. Saul gave himself to death to escape the consequences of his sin—to no avail. Jesus gave Himself to death that believers would escape the consequences of their sin—and prevailed. Saul was mighty, but is fallen. Jesus became lowly and was obedient to death on the cross, and is exalted as a Prince and a Savior, the firstborn among many brethren. And He—and they with Him—shall reign forever and ever!