1 Samuel 31
I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy recently. Two weeks ago marked the one year anniversary since my dad passed away suddenly. And when something like that happens, you usually find yourself reflecting on big questions.
Maybe you’ve experienced something like that. The loss of a loved one. The loss of a job. The diagnosis that came out of nowhere.
You start asking yourself questions like, “How will I be remembered? How do I WANT to be remembered?”
These are questions that come up as we near the endings that are so common to us all. Nearing the end of life. Experiencing the end of a career. Grieving the end of an era when friends move away.
And these are questions that we’re going to consider today because we are at the end of 1 Samuel. We are at the end of the story for Saul. And even though our culture prefers to skip through hard questions like these and get straight to the victorious ending where the hero is lifted up by a crowd and there are cheers and montages and slow-motion clapping, we are going to choose to linger a moment in this space, because there is profound grace waiting for us.
So let’s open our Bibles to 1 Samuel, chapter 31. We’ll be covering the whole chapter, so keep your Bibles open, but for now, let’s read the first 7 verses:
READING – 1 Sam 31:1-7
Here we are, at the end of this first volume of the story of the kings of Israel. When we began this story, we learned about the prophet Samuel, who was considered the last of the judges over Israel. When he became old, the people came to him and asked him to appoint a king over them, to lead them, just like the other nations around them had.
They wanted a king who would give them victory over their enemies. They wanted a king to give them security and provide for their needs. They wanted a king who would establish them and give them influence among the nations.
I mean, the Lord was already doing all of those things for them, and more, but they wanted a king who looked like them. Maybe even a king who they could choose. One they could coerce or bribe. A king they could change.
So Samuel was directed by God to find Saul. Saul wasn’t so sure at first. After all, he was from the smallest clan in the smallest tribe of all of Israel. Him, the king? Sure, he was tall and fit. Seemed like he could be a decent warrior.
But when the time came for him to be presented in front of all of the people, he didn’t show. He was hiding. Terrified to be found. Terrified what the people would do to him. What they would expect of him. Would he measure up? Would he be able to live up to their hopes?
And in a very similar way to how he started, today we see how it all ends for Saul. Our reading today drops us right into the middle of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. The day before, the Philistines had sent away David, and he’s probably just now arriving back at Ziklag to see that they’ve been attacked, which is what Pastor Chris preached on last week.
Just last night, Saul had visited the medium who had helped him summon and speak to Samuel from beyond the grave. It was then that Samuel told Saul he would die the next day.
And so here we are: Saul is being pursued and overtaken by the Philistine army. His soldiers are falling. His commanders are retreating. They’re trying to get to high ground on a nearby hillside, but the enemy is crushing them anyway.
Saul had been here before. He was no stranger to war. His first act as king was to rescue the town of Jabesh Gilead. He had been reconfirmed as king after that. His whole purpose as king was to fight and defeat Israel’s arch-enemy, the Philistines. He and his sons had driven back the Philistines and Israel had taken over more territory from them. But he had been king for over 40 years. He wasn’t a young man any more. And he didn’t know where his sons or the other commanders were.
Out of nowhere, an arrow comes whistling through the air and hits Saul. He doesn’t need to check; he knows it’s bad. The icy-hot pain and clenched muscles tell him that the end is near. He looks around for escape, for somewhere to hide. He knows David used to hide in hillside caves. But there’s nothing he can see. The only person by him is his armor bearer. Just a young kid. Holding a shield that’s too big for him.
For a second, Saul is reminded of when he first met David. He was also a young boy. Saul tried to put his armor on him to go fight Goliath. It was too big for him, too. So he didn’t use it. Just went out as he was to fight the Philistine.
The Philistines. Nearby shouting brings him back to the present. The Philistines are getting closer. There’s no way that Saul and his armor bearer are going to be able to fight them off. And it’s not like they won’t know who he is. An old man at a battle? With an armor bearer carrying the shield and crest of a king? Yeah, there won’t be a swift and merciful ending for Saul.
Kings get captured. Kings get tortured. Kings get paraded around and mocked and kept as trophies.
Saul knew because he had done it. When he defeated the Amalekites, he took all the plunder back home and kept Agag, their king, as a prisoner. A trophy of war. A souvenir to prove that Saul was indeed a powerful king. No one could question Saul’s abilities as king anymore, because all he had to do was bring out his new toy, dressed like a jester.
Samuel didn’t like that, though. He showed up that day saying that the Lord had rejected him as king because he had disobeyed and kept plunder for himself. Saul remembered it like it was yesterday. The knot in his stomach. The anger. The shame. The curious stares from the onlookers. He begged Samuel to come preside over the sacrifice so that he could save face in front of the people. “Please honor me before the elders.”
There was no honor in Saul’s future now. If he was captured, he would definitely be mocked and made fun of. They would probably taunt him, hitting him when he wasn’t looking. Dress him up and pretend to honor him. Torture him and gloat in his weakness.
No, he couldn’t deal with that. Only one option. He called his armor bearer over. “Take your sword and run me through, otherwise I’ll be captured and made sport of.”
Before he even finished the command, he could tell the boy wouldn’t follow it. The fear in his eyes. The lack of color in his face. He just froze and wouldn’t move. Wouldn’t act.
Saul had never had that problem. He knew when to act. When to move. When to seize. When to take control. He had built his kingdom that way. And he had protected his legacy that way, by ensuring there was no one to challenge him. He took the best and brightest in Israel into his service. The one he was most afraid of, David, had been his right-hand man. Best to keep your enemies closest. But even when he tried to get rid of him with ever-increasingly dangerous missions, David just wouldn’t die.
And when Saul himself tried to kill him, he kept escaping. And when Saul chased him all over Israel, David chose to spare Saul’s life on two different occasions. And now this boy was doing the same thing. Unwilling to kill the king.
The shouts seemed closer and closer. The enemy was closing in. Saul was out of time. There was no way he was going to be captured and ridiculed and tortured. No, HE got to decide what happened to him. No one else got to control him. No one else got to dictate his life. No one else got to decide how Saul lived. He was going to stay in control. The king submits to no one.
And so Saul took his own sword and ended it all.
As we keep reading, we see that the next day, the Philistines find Saul’s body while they are looting the dead. They cut off his head and loot his armor and take his body back as a trophy. Messengers spread the good news, the gospel, of Saul’s demise all throughout Philistia. For the Philistines, this was more than a military victory. This was a theological victory. If a king lost, that meant their god lost. The gods of the Philistines had defeated the God of Israel, and they had Saul’s body to prove it. They delivered Saul’s armor to one of their temples as an offering to their gods, and they fastened Saul’s body to the outer wall of a city as an offering to the vultures.
The news spread throughout Israel as well, but it wasn’t good news to them. Their king was dead. The enemies had won. Which means that they had no leader, no protection anymore. Many Israelites along the border of Israel and Philistia abandoned their homes, and the Philistines took back even more territory than Saul had ever won from them.
Only one town tried to pay homage to Saul. Jabesh Gilead, the town he had rescued when he was first king. They remembered his great deeds for them, and they snuck through the dark of night to reclaim his body and give him the honor of a proper funeral.
And here ends the account of Saul, first king of Israel.
Saul, a man haunted by his own potential, always chasing what others saw in him, what others expected of him. Never sure if he would measure up. Always trying to control the situation around him to hold on to the power and influence he had.
Many times, this desire to hold on to control meant that he went against God’s commands, God’s will. But when he was confronted on his disobedience, he wasn’t repentant. Sure, he said he was sorry, but even his regret was a part of his control in order to hold on to his position. He was truly unrepentant. Unwilling to bow to the will of anyone else. Unwilling to submit, to surrender.
Does this mean that God got it wrong when he appointed Saul king? Were the Philistines right in thinking that Saul’s demise meant the failure of God?
If we peek ahead, we know that God’s glorious purpose goes rushing on by. He already found a different king a while ago. Saul was the one who wouldn’t concede. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t given the chance! How many times was Saul confronted and invited to join God’s purposes?
But his unrepentance led him further and further down the path of self. And when the end came, there was no one left to support him. No one left for him to lead. He died alone.
And with all of his concern for legacy and holding on to power, when it was over, his obituary was a single line that he SHARED with three sons, an employee, and “all his other men.” And out of his whole kingdom, only one town chose to honor him.
Israel wanted a king. They wanted someone to lead them and give them victory. They wanted someone who would provide security and take care of them. They wanted someone to give them influence among the nations.
Samuel the prophet had warned them. He warned them that a king would just take their sons for war. He would appoint workers for the kingdom. He would tax them for his government. He would use them for HIS benefit, not for the benefit of the people. But Israel wouldn’t listen. They wanted a king!
Some of you might be thinking, yeah that’s why it’s good we don’t have kings in this country. But don’t we do the same thing?! We ask for leaders over us to fight our enemies. We look to coaches and bosses and parents to provide security for us and take care of us. We expect those in authority to help make a name for us among the competition. And when they don’t live up to our expectations, we vote them out of office, or grumble about them in the break room, or complain about how big the church USED to be under the previous pastor. And then we turn around and try to get a new leader!
And all the while, God is sitting there saying, “But I already AM your King! Follow me! Join MY work!”
But we, like Israel, keep asking for a king. Saul was the king that Israel asked for, but he wasn’t the king they NEEDED. And spoiler alert, David isn’t going to be the perfect king they need either. And you can list any leader, previous or current, and the answer is still that they will fall short and won’t be the leader we NEED.
And I’m going to tell you about the king we need in a second, but before we get there, we have to admit that there is something else we do that is even worse than what Israel did.
We don’t just ask for a king to lead us and take care of us. We want to BE the king. We want to be the hero of our own story. We want to decide the direction of our life.
We look at Saul’s story, and we compare it to our life, trying to turn it into a moral lesson. In fact, that’s the way I first wrote this sermon, because it’s so compelling! “Don’t be like Saul, who lived for himself.”
But the truth is: I am Saul! And so are you!
Appointed by God, but then we get to WORK. Trying to live up to the call. Trying to EARN the position. Trying to prove we aren’t a waste, a regret, a missed opportunity.
I mean, “I know I’m a child of God, because…” I read my Bible. And I give money to my church. And I try to bring my kids or my grandkids to church. Doing those things, that PROVES I’m a child of God, right?
But when it doesn’t work out, or when tragedy occurs, or when we wake up one day and realize that a lot of life is now in the rearview mirror, and we don’t feel like we have much to show for it…
We either lament and despair, saying “woe is me!”, or we double down, pressing forward, trying even harder, playing to our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses.
We start thinking about legacy. What do I want my life to be about?
I was even going to have us pretend to think of what we wanted in our obituary. You know, real light topic for a sermon at church. “Let’s pretend we’re writing our obituaries, everyone!” “What would you hope it said?” And then I was going to give you some rah-rah speech about going out and choosing to live that life. To make your obituary come true. To actually become “the person who was more and more generous each year,” or to become “the person who taught their grandkids about the love of Jesus.”
What do I want my life to be about?
We look at Saul, and we know we want to do better than him! So we look at David and try to learn from his successes, while trying to stay away from his failures. Some pastor tells us that David is not the perfect king, Jesus is. So we look at Jesus and say, “Yes, THAT’S the better model! Let’s try and live THAT way!”
But that completely misses the point of the gospel! We aren’t SUPPOSED to try hard and live a better life! That’s the old nature. The old Adam. Trying to live better, hoping to get it right. Hoping to make an impact while we’re alive. Obsessed with big names like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa or Billy Graham and trying to make a splash like them.
But the awful truth of that way of life is that it’s a dead end. 99.999% of people are forgotten after 1-2 generations. Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you: how many of you know the names of your great-grandparents? Even if you know a few, do you know anything about their lives?
When we are focused on our own legacy, living our own life, we get caught in the same trap that Saul did: climbing the ladder. Insecure about our right to be there, but constantly grasping at the next step, grasping the next promotion, the next status symbol. Trying to take hold of our future. Trying to control the risks around us by ensuring our retirement accounts are secure. Trying to control our spouse or our kids. Trying to be the king, the master of our own domain.
It’s exhausting isn’t it?
We need a better way of life.
We need a hero.
Do you want to know who one of my biggest spiritual heroes is? It’s someone who used to live right here in Southern California. They made a profound impact on me, and actually, you don’t even know it, but they’ve made a profound impact on your life, too. His name is Brian Clark.
Brian isn’t a famous theologian or missionary, though he’s a good man. But Brian was my dad’s best friend in high school, who first convinced my dad to go to youth group with him. My dad didn’t come from a family that followed Jesus, but it was because of Brian that my dad became interested in church. Then in college, my dad was led to Christ.
Brian is one of my biggest spiritual heroes because he took my dad to youth group so that he could meet Jesus and fall in love with him. So that my dad could meet my mom at Bible school a few years later. So that he could raise me and my brother to know about grace and forgiveness found only in Jesus. So that I could fall in love with Jesus and become a pastor. So that I could tell all of YOU how INCREDIBLE it is that we have a savior who willingly humbled himself. Who, even though he WAS GOD, didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped for his own advantage, but made himself nothing, taking on weak humanity, taking on the nature of a servant. For me. For you.
And then he humbled himself and submitted to death. For me. For you.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Why would I ever want to be the hero of my story when I can be a part of THAT story?! Of God who created the whole universe and has never stopped pursuing the creation that he loves. Has never stopped working in the world to bring about redemption and restoration.
And God is still inviting you into his story, which is such a bigger story than ours. He’s beckoning us to JOIN him in the work that he’s doing around us right now.
Life lived for ourselves leads to an ending that is lonely, and fearful, and desperate. But no matter how much life we’ve lived for ourselves, no matter how little energy we have left, God is still inviting us.
There’s still time. There’s still time for God to use you in his work. If you’re still breathing, and if he’s still leading, then he can use you!
So I’m going to encourage you to ask yourself a question today. Actually, I think it would be great if you asked yourself this question every day: “How can I boldly follow Jesus today?”
How can I boldly follow Jesus by creating new memories with that friend? How can I boldly follow Jesus to walk across the street and get to know that neighbor? How can I boldly follow Jesus to finally forgive that person I’ve been mad at for a while. How can I boldly follow Jesus in doing small acts of generosity and compassion. And when the people I show love to ask why, I just get to say that I’m trying to boldly follow Jesus, because he’s the king!
Because the king we need is Jesus. And when we actually start living as if he’s actually the king, then we stop trying to build our own kingdoms. We stop living like Saul, who refused to submit, who was scared of losing, who only thought of himself at the end.
No, we have a better king. Jesus is the only one actually worthy of ruling all of us, but he doesn’t do it like human kings do. Instead of choosing himself and his own comfort, Jesus willingly GAVE HIMSELF UP to be tortured and mocked. He endured with humility the fake trial they set up for him. He willingly allowed himself to be hit while he wasn’t looking. He allowed them to dress him up and pretend to honor him. He willingly submitted to the torture and the gloating. And when he neared the end, his last thoughts weren’t of himself. His last thoughts were of YOU.
“Father, forgive them.”
And then, after his body had been offered to the tomb, he rose to life and sat down on the throne in heaven. Because HE’S the king! And that’s good news worth sharing.