1 Samuel 31: Lessons Regarding Rebellious Leaders From God’s Judgments on Saul

Introduction: Here, Saul’s life and his reign over Israel came to a tragic end. He rebelled against God as king. His actions brought judgment upon himself, three of his children, and the entire nation. From Saul’s judgment, God reveals seven warnings on the dangers of rebellious leaders.

First, as a result of Saul’s sins, the Philistines defeated the Jews in battle. God repeatedly warned that He would lift His hedge of protection from the Jews when they turned from Him. From Saul’s judgment, God confirmed His warning that a rebellious leader can lead a nation to spiritual or physical defeat. Second, as a result of Saul’s sins, three of his children died. God also warned that sin could bring judgment upon innocent children. In this case, Saul’s God-fearing son Jonathan died. From Saul’s judgment, God confirmed His warning that a rebellious leader can bring judgment upon even innocent children. Third, Saul was mortally wounded and then took his own life to end his suffering. God also warned that sin leads to suffering. From Saul’s judgment, God confirmed His warning that a rebellious leader can cause suffering. Fourth, God judged Saul and his sons in the exact manner that God predicted in advance. God gave Saul advanced warnings to give him a chance to repent. From Saul’s judgment, God reveals that a rebellious leader who refuses to repent will be judged. Fifth, after Saul’s death, the Philistines took many Jewish cities and lands and expelled the Jews. God also warned that sin could impoverish an entire nation. From Israel’s judgment, God confirmed His warning that a rebellious leader can impoverish a nation’s citizens. Sixth, the Philistines desecrated Saul’s body and taunted God by placing his weapons in their pagan temples. God also warned that sin can cause helplessness and shame. From Saul’s sins, God confirmed that a rebellious leader can become helpless and dishonor the nation and God. Finally, the people mourned after Saul’s death. From the sorrow that Saul brought upon the nation, God reveals that a rebellious leader cannot bring hope to a fallen nation. A God-fearing leader also cannot create hope. But a God-fearing leader can lead by example in turning a sinful nation back to God.

1. A Rebellious Leader Can Lead a Nation to Spiritual or Physical Defeat. 1 Sam. 31:1.

  • The Philistines defeated the Jews in battle. As the first stage of God’s judgment upon the Jews, He allowed the Philistines to drive deep into Jewish territory and defeat the Jews in battle: “Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.” (1 Sam. 31:1; 1 Chron. 10:1). The Philistines previously drove into Jewish territory and assembled at Shunem. Saul and his army had camped at Mount Gilboa (1 Sam. 28:4). He was filled with fear at the sight of the enemy forces, and he became desperate when God would not answer his prayers (1 Sam. 28:5-6). He hastened God’s judgment by turning to a medium or witch to speak with Samuel (1 Sam. 28:7-18). Samuel then appeared and advised Saul that his army would be defeated, and he and his sons had one more day to live (1 Sam. 28:19).

Pieter Bruegal (1520-1569) “Saul (Battle Against the Philistines on the Gilboa) (1562)1

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion can lead to its defeat in battle. Moses warned that there are consequences when a nation and its leaders rebel against God. These consequences can include defeat on the battlefield: “25 The Lord shall cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Dt. 28:25). “I will set My face against you so that you will be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when no one is pursuing you.” (Lev. 26:17). ‘“But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is. 1:20). The Jews had seen this curse before. When they rebelled against God, the Philistines had previously defeated them in battle: “The Philistines drew up in battle array to meet Israel. When the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield.” (1 Sam. 4:2). “So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.” (1 Sam. 4:10). The Jews failed to remember Moses’ words when contemplating their losses. They assumed that a king would solve their problems. But Samuel warned them: “But if you still do wickedly, both you and your king will be swept away.” (1 Sam. 12:25). Because Saul had acted wickedly, both he and the entire Jewish nation would pay the consequences for his sins.

2. A Rebellious Leader Can Bring Judgment Upon Even Innocent Children. 1 Sam. 31:2.

  • The Philistines kill three of Saul’s sons. After witnessing the defeat of his army, Saul then witnesses the death of his three sons: “The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua the sons of Saul.” (1 Sam. 31:2; 1 Chron. 10:2). These were three of his four sons. (1 Sam. 14:49). Their deaths were necessary to ensure David’s kingship. Jonathan was innocent of any crimes. He was even willing to submit to David (1 Sam. 18:1-4). But his brothers would not do so. One brother, Ish-bosheth, would survive and later challenge David’s claim to the throne (2 Sam. 2:8-4:12).

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion can lead to judgment upon its innocent children. Jonathan died as an innocent son because of his father’s sins. The prophets also warned that a nation with leaders living in rebellion can bring judgment upon the nation’s innocent children: “They will devour your sons and your daughters;” (Jer. 5:17(b)). “My tent is destroyed, and all my ropes are broken; my sons have gone from me and are no more. There is no one to stretch out my tent again or to set up my curtains.” (Jer. 10:20). “Thus says the LORD, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’” (Jer. 31:15; 10:20). Saul’s actions brought judgment upon his children. A nation’s leaders should take these warnings seriously.

  • A nation’s children may also be judged with spiritual bondage. Moses also warned that a judged nation could see its children taken into captivity. This could include both physical and spiritual bondage: “32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and yearn for them continually; but there will be nothing you can do.” (Dt. 28:32). “41 You shall have sons and daughters but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity.” (Dt. 28:41). “The LORD is righteous; for I have rebelled against His command; hear now, all peoples, and behold my pain; My virgins and my young men have gone into captivity.” (Lam. 1:18). “For the LORD has caused her grief because of the multitude of her transgressions; her little ones have gone away as captives before the adversary.” (Lam. 1:5(b-c)). “My virgins and my young men have gone into captivity.” (Lam. 1:18(b)). “There is none to guide her among all the sons she has borne, nor is there one to take her by the hand among all the sons she has reared.” (Isa. 51:18; 2 Chron. 28:8). A nation with drug addicted children is an example of such bondage.

3. A Rebellious Leader Can Cause Suffering. 1 Sam. 31:3-5.

  • The Philistines wounded Saul, and Saul committed suicide. As part of God’s judgment, Saul was first wounded in battle and then took his own life in desperation: “The battle went heavily against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, otherwise these uncircumcised will come and pierce me through and make sport of me.’ But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it. When his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him.” (1 Sam. 31:3-5; 1 Chron. 10:3-5). In a different account of Saul’s final words, he complained of his suffering: “Then he said to me, ‘Please stand beside me and kill me, for agony has seized me because my life still lingers in me.’” (2 Sam. 1:9). Saul should have turned to God in his final moments. Out of mercy and grace, God gave him many chances to repent. Instead, his own thoughts were on his honor and his suffering: “Saul, when sorely wounded, and unable to resist or to flee, expressed no concern about his never-dying soul; but only desired that the Philistines might not insult over him, or put him to pain, and he became his own murderer.” (Matthew Henry on 1 Sam. 31).2

Saul was first severely wounded with an arrow3

Saul then fell on his own sword, and he took his life4

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion may also cause suffering. When a nation or its leaders live in rebellion to God, the result is suffering and sometimes even a desire to die: “The yoke of my transgressions is bound; by His hand they are knit together. They have come upon my neck; He has made my strength fail. The Lord has given me into the hands of those against whom I am not able to stand.” (Lam. 1:14). “. . . and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you.” (Dt. 28:47(b)). “The cords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow.” (Ps. 116:3). “For evils beyond number have surrounded me; my iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to see; they are more numerous than the hairs of my head, and my heart has failed me.” (Ps. 40:12). “Go and speak to Hananiah, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, ‘You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made instead of them yokes of iron.’” (Jer. 28:13). “His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin.” (Prov. 5:22). The desperation caused by a life of rebellion is evidenced by the high suicide rates in secular western societies.

4. A Rebellious Leader Who Refuses to Repent Will Eventually be Judged. 1 Sam. 31:6.

  • The Philistines fulfill God’s prophesy of judgment upon Saul and his sons. The death of Saul and his sons on the same day is proof that God’s Word (including His judgments) always come true: “Thus Saul died with his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men on that day together.” (1 Sam. 31:6; 1 Chron. 10:6). God’s judgments upon Saul were slow and progressive to give him every opportunity to repent. First, he lost his right to have heirs to his kingdom: “But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.” (1 Sam. 13:14). Second, when Saul refused to repent, he then lost his own kingdom: “But Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel’ . . . “So Samuel said to him, ‘The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you.”’ (1 Sam. 15:26, 28). Third, when Saul again refused to repent, God took his life and his sons’ lives on the same day: “As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!” (1 Sam. 28:18-19). The author of the book of Chronicles reveals that Saul died both because of his rebellion against God’s Word and because he turned to the demonic realm for guidance: “So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the LORD. Therefore He killed him and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse.” (1 Chron. 10:13-14).

  • God’s warnings of future judgments should also be taken seriously. God does not want to judge anyone: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9). Anyone who repents can find eternal life in Jesus. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life . . . He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Jo. 3:16, 18). But God warns that whoever rejects Him as their Lord and Savior will face an eternal life without God: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (Jo. 3:36). “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” (Mk. 16:16). These judgments are avoidable and should horrify you. Are you taking steps to spread the hope available through Jesus?

Saul lay with his three dead sons5

5. A Rebellious Leader Can Impoverish a Nation’s Citizens. 1 Sam. 31:7.

  • The Philistines route the Jews from their cities and seize them as their own. After losing the battle, their king, and his sons, many of the Jews lost their cities to Philistine invaders: “When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, with those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned the cities and fled; then the Philistines came and lived in them.” (1 Sam. 31:7; 1 Chron. 10:7). The Philistines took the Jewish lands and cities in Jordan as their own. They cut Israel in half and were ready to deliver a knock-out blow.

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion may also cause people to lose their belongings. When a nation or society embraces evil, people may also lose their belongings as a consequence of sin: “The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; . . .” (Josh. 2:14(a)). “[T]herefore, behold, I am going to give you to the sons of the east for a possession, and they will set their encampments among you and make their dwellings among you; they will eat your fruit and drink your milk.” (Ezek. 25:4). “Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields-- strangers are devouring them in your presence; it is desolation, as overthrown by strangers.” (Is. 1:7). “you shall build a house, but you will not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but you will not use its fruit.” 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will not eat of it; your donkey shall be torn away from you, and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you will have none to save you. . . . 33 A people whom you do not know shall eat up the produce of your ground and all your labors, ” (Dt. 28:30(b)-31, 33(a)). “[Y]ou will sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up.” (Lev. 26:16(c)). “They will devour your harvest and your food; . . They will devour your flocks and your herds; they will devour your vines and your fig trees; . .” (Jer. 5:17(a)(c); Neh. 9:37; Ezek. 25:4).

  • The sins of a leader can affect the entire community. Saul’s actions show that the ungodly actions of one leader can impact an entire nation. Hundreds of years earlier, Joshua reminded the people that the sin of one person caused the entire nation to lose in battle: ‘“Did not Achan the son of Zerah act unfaithfully in the things under the ban, and wrath fall on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.’” (Josh. 22:20). Solomon also warned that: “. . . but one sinner destroys much good.” (Ecc. 9:18). One commentator observes: “When the leader (King Saul) was struck, it spread panic among God's people. Jesus knew this same principle would be used against His own disciples: Then Jesus said to them, ‘All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’’ (Mark 14:27). . . . This shows why leaders have a higher responsibility, because their fall can endanger many more people than the fall of someone who is not a leader. This is why the New Testament openly presents a higher standard for leaders, even saying they should be blameless for just cause before the world and God’s people (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).” (David Guzik on 1 Sam. 31).6 Are you voting for God-fearing leaders and praying for the nation’s leaders to repent and turn to God?

6. A Rebellious Leader Dishonors the Nation and God. 1 Sam. 31:8-10.

  • The Philistines desecrated Saul’s body and dishonored God. As a final act of judgment, the Philistines desecrated his body and mocked God by placing Saul’s belongings in their pagan temples: “It came about on the next day when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. 10 They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.” (1 Sam. 31:8-10). Saul committed suicide to avoid this fate. Yet, he was powerless to stop it. In first Chronicles, the author states that the Philistines placed his armor and his severed head in the house of Dagon instead of the temple of Ashtaroth: “They put his armor in the house of their gods and fastened his head in the house of Dagon.” (1 Chron. 10:8-10). Thus, Saul’s sins dishonored Yahweh and brought humiliation to all of Israel.

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion may also cause people to feel helpless. For a wayward nation and its leaders, there is no protection without God. Like Saul, their sins will eventually render them as helpless as an exposed carcass. They will be weak and helpless to stop those who might prey upon them: “Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.” (Dt. 28:26). “As for those of you who may be left, I will also bring weakness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. And the sound of a driven leaf will chase them, and even when no one is pursuing they will flee as though from the sword, and they will fall.” (Lev. 26:36). “The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, . . . so that they could no longer stand before their enemies.” (Josh. 2:14). “The LORD has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word which He commanded from days of old. . . . He has exalted the might of your adversaries.” (Lam. 2:17). “I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.” (Jer. 19:7; 7:33; Ps. 79:2). “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” (Prov. 28:1). If you continually give into sin, you will eventually become addicted to your desires of the flesh and unable to stop yourself from sinning.

  • A nation with leaders living in rebellion may also dishonor God and the nation. When a nation or its leaders openly embraces rebellion, they will eventually be vilified and dishonor God: “You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all the people where the Lord drives you.” (Dt. 28:37). “You make us a reproach to our neighbors, a scoffing and a derision to those around us.” (Ps. 44:13; Is. 43:28). “I will make them a terror and an evil for all the kingdoms of the earth, as a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse in all places where I will scatter them.” (Jer. 24:9; 44:8; 15:4). “[T]hen I will uproot you from My land which I have given you, and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.” (2 Chron. 7:20; 1 Kgs. 9:7(b)). ‘“So it will be a reproach, a reviling, a warning and an object of horror to the nations who surround you when I execute judgments against you in anger, wrath and raging rebukes. I, the LORD, have spoken.”’ (Ezek. 5:15). Do your actions dishonor God?

  • Don’t be a Saul and cause others to stumble. Any believer in Christ is part of His “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). As a believer, you are also the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). You are also an “ambassador” for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). Your conduct should not cause any other person to stumble in their walk with God (1 Cor. 10:32; 8:13). Are you allowing the desires of your flesh to control you and cause others to stumble?

7. A Rebellious Leader Cannot Bring Hope to a Fallen Nation. 1 Sam. 31:11-13.

  • The Jews mourned the judgment imposed upon their king and their nation. When most of the nation had given up hope, the people that Saul saved years earlier gave his family a proper burial and fasted for the nation: “11 Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all the valiant men rose and walked all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” (1 Sam. 31:11-13; 1 Chron. 10:11-12; 2 Sam. 1:12). When Saul once walked with God, he rallied the nation to deliver the people of Jabesh-gilead in modern Jordan from mutilation and servitude to the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11:1-11). The people of Jabesh-gilead remembered and gave Saul a proper funeral. David later mourned Saul’s death, even though they were enemies (2 Sam. 1:11-27). He also later thanked these men for honoring Saul (2 Sam. 2:4-7). David later honored their memories by moving the bodies for proper burial in their home city of Zela. “They buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the grave of Kish his father; thus they did all that the king commanded, and after that God was moved by prayer for the land.” (2 Sam. 21:14).

  • David led Israel to a new beginning by turning Israel back to God. The darkness that Saul brought upon Israel would soon give way for the light that God would shine through David. David became a hero when he restored God’s honor in the face of the taunts of Goliath (1 Sam. 17:26). He would again defeat the Philistines and restore God’s honor. But true restoration does not come from a leader. Instead, as Samuel advised them earlier, it would only come from turning back to God. Only when the people turned back to God would God allow David to deliver Israel: “Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, ‘If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”’ (1 Sam. 7:3).

  • Trust in God and not in government for your deliverance. God repeatedly warned the Jews to put their trust in Him and not in human leaders for their deliverance. “Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3). “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (Ps. 118:9). “O give us help against the adversary, for deliverance by man is in vain.” (Ps. 60:11). God is the one who strengthens and protects His people: “But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thess. 3:3). A God-fearing leader does not promise to deliver his or her people. Instead, a God-fearing leader guides people back to God.

  • Jesus suffered at the cross to end your pain. As one commentator observes, Saul sought to avoid his self-created suffering that he imposed upon the entire nation. In contrast, Jesus was blameless but took on suffering to save others from death and despair: “Saul’s sin and his desire to die is selfish, self-serving. His sin brings about not only his own death, but also the death of his sons and many Israelites, and the suffering of many more. Saul’s leadership is not a blessing, but a curse to Israel. How different was the death of our Lord. It was not our Lord’s desire to die, humanly speaking. He was not suicidal. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this “cup” of death be removed from Him (Matthew 26:39). He died in obedience to the will of the Father, not in disobedience (Matthew 26:39; John 6:38; Philippians 2:3-8). He did not die to save Himself from pain; He died to endure to the full the pain that we deserve as punishment for our sins (Isaiah 53; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:17-18). This is why He refused the wine mingled with gall (Matthew 27:33-34). He was not willing to take any “medication” which would dull the pain He must bear on our behalf. His death is not a tragic failure on his part, which we try to forget (as with a suicide), but a magnificent sacrifice for us, which we celebrate every week at communion. His death was not self-serving, but sacrificial. It was a death He suffered for our sins and for our salvation. And all we need to do is to accept it as God’s means for forgiving our sins and providing us with eternal life.” (Robert (Bob) Deffinbaugh “28. Saul’s Death Wish” (1 Samuel 31)).7