God’s guidance and protection of David as recorded in 1 Samuel 29–30 stand in stark contrast to the fate of Saul described in chapter 31. David won great victories, but Saul suffered his last and most humiliating defeat. The author of 1 Samuel juxtaposes these events in order to teach us an important lesson. Matthew Henry comments: “The very same day, perhaps, that David was triumphing over the Amalekites, were the Philistines triumphing over Saul. One is set over against the other, that men may see what comes of trusting in God and what comes of forsaking him.”
We see in 1 Samuel 31:1–7 that Saul and the army of Israel met the Philistines in battle on Mount Gilboa. This mountain is located in the north of the promised land, near the Sea of Galilee. It is far from the traditional Philistine area, which means that the Philistines made an incursion a considerable distance into the land of Israel. The battle was fierce and fast. Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Machi-shua were all killed, and Saul was gravely wounded. Instead of being captured and killed by the Philistines, Saul committed suicide.
Thus fell Saul, the first king of Israel. The one whom God chose to defeat the Philistines was finally defeated by that same enemy (see 9:16). His fate shows that the Lord does not take persistent, impenitent disobedience lightly. Saul’s disobedience in worship, in carrying out his kingly duties, in murdering the priests at Nob, and in consulting a medium brought him to his end as God fulfilled His promise to enact final discipline on Saul (13:8–15; 15:1–23; 22:6–23; 28:3–25).
Saul died as he lived, bringing shame on the name of the Lord. The Philistines paraded his death before their countrymen and put Saul’s armor in their “temple of Ashtaroth” (31:8–10). To them, Saul’s defeat signified that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had lost in battle against the Philistine gods. But Saul was shown some grace even in death. The valiant men of Jabesh-gilead kept Saul’s body from suffering perpetual disgrace, rescuing it from the Philistines and burying it (vv. 11–13). Saul had a bad end, but as the Lord’s anointed, he deserved a proper burial.
To the ancient Israelite reader, this conclusion to Saul’s life showed plainly the kind of king Israel was not supposed to have. Saul proved to be everything that the king of Israel should not be according to Deuteronomy 17:14–20. A new, better king was needed—one after God’s own heart—and he was about to be installed on the throne.