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This chapter gives an account of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites, which had been preparing for, and the issue of it; in which Saul, his three sons, and his servants, were slain, upon which his army fled, and several of his cities were taken, ( 1 Samuel 31:1-7); what the Philistines did with his body and his armour, ( 1 Samuel 31:8-10); the former of which, together with the bodies of his sons, the men of Jabeshgilead rescued, and burnt them, and buried their bones under a tree at Jabesh, expressing great sorrow and concern, ( 1 Samuel 31:11-13).
Ver. 1 . Now the Philistines fought against Israel , etc.] Being come to Jezreel where Israel pitched, ( 1 Samuel 29:1,11); they fell upon them, began the battle: and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines ; at the first onset, as it should seem: and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa ; which was near, and whither fleeing they were pursued and slain, at least great numbers of them.
Ver. 2 . And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul , etc.] Stuck to him, pushed him close, bore hard upon him in that part of the army where he was having a design upon his person: and upon his sons ; who were with him: and the Philistines slew Jonathan ; who is mentioned first, being the eldest son, and perhaps first slain; and this was so ordered by the providence of God, that David’s way to the throne might be more clear and easy; for though Jonathan would not have opposed him himself, yet the people, fond of him, would, at least many of them, been for setting him on the throne; and though he would have refused it, knowing David was the Lord’s anointed, and have made interest for him, this would have looked as if he had made him king, and not the Lord: and Abinadab and Malchishua, Saul’s sons ; these also were slain; former of these is called Ishui, ( 1 Samuel 14:49); Ishbosheth either was not in the battle, being left at home, as unfit for war, or to take care of the kingdom; or else he fled with Abner, and others, and escaped, and who was to be a trial to David.
Ver. 3 . And the battle went sore against Saul , etc.] Pressed heavy upon him; he was the butt of the Philistines, they aimed at his person and life: and the archers hit him ; or “found him” f565 ; the place where was, and directed their arrows at him: and he was sore wounded of the archers ; or rather “he was afraid” of them, as the Targum, for as yet he was not wounded; and so the Syriac and Arabic versions render it, and is the sense Kimchi and Ben Melech give of the word: he was not afraid of death, as Abarbinel observes, he chose to die; but he was afraid he should be hit by the archers in such a way that he should not die immediately, and should be taken alive and ill used; the Philistines, especially the Cherethites, were famous for archery; (see Gill on “ Zephaniah 2:5”).
Ver. 4 . Then said Saul unto his armourbearer , etc.] Who, the Jews say, was Doeg the Edomite, promoted to this office for slaying the priests: draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith ; for if he was wounded, yet not mortally, and it is certain he did not so apprehend it. It is much the sword of the armourbearer should be sheathed in a battle; but perhaps he was preparing for flight, and so had put it up in its scabbard: lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me ; lest they should not dispatch him at once, but put him to a lingering and torturing death, and insult him, and mock at him, as they did Samson: but his armourbearer would not, for he was sore afraid ; to lay his hand on the king the Lord’s anointed, to take away his life, being more scrupulous of doing that, if this was Doeg, than of slaying the priests of the Lord; or he might be afraid of doing this, since should he survive this action, he would be called to an account by the Israelites, and be put to death for killing the king: therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it ; or rather “the sword”, the sword of his armourbearer, and so was a suicide: the Jews endeavour to excuse this fact of Saul, because he knew he should die in battle from the words of Samuel; and being pressed sore by the archers, he saw it was impossible to escape out of their hands and therefore judged it better to kill himself than to fall by the hands of the uncircumcised; but these excuses will not do. Josephus denies he killed himself; that though he attempted it, his sword would not pierce through him, and that he was killed by the Amalekite, and that that was a true account he gave to David in the following chapter; though it seems rather to be a lie, to curry favour with David, and that Saul did destroy himself.
Ver. 5 . And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead , etc.] By his own hands, and not by the hands of the Amalekite, which the armour bearer would scarcely have suffered: he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him ; some think that Saul, and his armourbearer, died by the same sword, which was the armourbearer’s; and if he was Doeg, they fell probably by the same sword with which the priests of the Lord were murdered at Nob, ( 1 Samuel 22:18); and it is observed by an historian f568 , that the murderers of Julius Caesar slew themselves with the same dagger they destroyed him.
Ver. 6 . So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer , etc.] Only with this difference, his three sons died honourably in the field of battle, but he and his armourbearer destroyed themselves. Josephus says he reigned eighteen years in the life of Samuel, and after his death twenty two years, which make the forty years the apostle ascribes to him, ( Acts 13:21); Eupolemus f570 , an Heathen writer, makes him to reign twenty one years; but of the years of his reign, both before and after the death of Samuel, chronologers are not agreed, (see 1 Samuel 25:1); and (see Gill on “ Acts 13:21”); and all his men that same day together ; not all the soldiers in his army; for many of them fled and escaped, and even Abner the general of the army, but his household servants, or those that were near his person, his bodyguards.
Ver. 7 . And which the men of Israel that [were] on the other side of the valley , etc.] The valley of Jezreel; of which (see Gill on “ Hosea 1:5”); and [they] that [were] on the other side Jordan ; or rather “on that side”; for the phrase will bear to be rendered either way, and so may mean that side of Jordan on which the battle was fought; for as for the other side, or that beyond it, the Israelites there could not be in such fear of the Philistines, nor do we ever read of their inhabiting any cities there; though as the phrase is used of the valley, as well as of the river, it may be rendered “about the valley, [and] about Jordan” f571 , and so describes such that dwelt near to each of them: saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead ; that is, had information and intelligence of those facts, for it is not to be supposed they saw them with their eyes: they forsook, the cities, and fled ; fearing they should be put to the sword, or carried captive: and the Philistines came and dwelt them ; having nothing more to do than to come and take possession.
Ver. 8 . And it came to pass on the morrow , etc.] The day after the battle, which perhaps was fought till night came on: when the Philistines came to strip the slain ; of their clothes, and take from them whatever was valuable, as their booty: that they found Saul and his sons fallen in Mount Gilboa ; to which they had betaken themselves, when the battle went against them in the valley; of which (see 1 Samuel 28:4).
Ver. 9 . And they cut off his head , etc.] And fastened it in the temple of Dagon, ( 1 Chronicles 10:10); perhaps that which was at Ashdod, one of the principalities of the Philistines, ( 1 Samuel 5:1,2); and stripped off his armour ; or vessels f572 , his clothes as well as his armour, and what he had about him; as for his crown on his head, and the bracelet on his arm, the Amalekite took them before the Philistines came, ( 2 Samuel 1:10); and sent into the land of the Philistines round about : not his head and his armour, for they were placed in the temple of their idols; unless we can suppose these were first carried about for show, and as proofs of the victory: but rather messengers, who were sent express with the news, to publish [it in] the house of their idols, and among the people ; that so they might be glad and rejoice, and give praise to their idols, to whom they ascribed the success they had.
Ver. 10 . And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth , etc.] A temple dedicated to their deities, called by this name; of which (see Gill on “ Judges 2:13”); Nothing was more common with the Gentiles than to place in their temples the arms they took from their enemies, as is strongly expressed by Homer and Virgil f574 ; and indeed the Jews did the same, as appears by the sword of Goliath being laid up in the tabernacle, ( Samuel 21:9). Here also the Heathens hung up their own arms when the war was ended: and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan ; which Josephus f576 says is the same which in his time was called Scythopolis, from the Scythians that possessed it, before called Nysa, according to Pliny f577 : it was given to the tribe of Manasseh, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of it, so that it was always in the possession of others, ( Joshua 17:11 Judges 1:27); where it is called Bethshean; to the wall of the city they fastened the body of Saul with nails, as it is commonly understood; but it is more likely they hung it on a gibbet without, and near the walls of the city; so the Targum, they hung his body; or, as Josephus f578 , they crucified it there; and so they did also the bodies of his sons, as appears from ( 1 Samuel 31:12).
Ver. 11 . And the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead , etc.] Who lived on the other side Jordan, about eight miles from Bethshan, according to Fuller f579 : heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul ; not only that they had got the victory over him, and routed his army, but had abused his body, and hung it up by way of reproach and ignominy; which they could not bear to hear of, remembering with gratitude the kindness he had shown to them, in delivering them out of the hands of Nahash the Ammonite, ( 1 Samuel 11:1-13).
Ver. 12 . All the valiant men arose , etc.] Of the city of Jabeshgilead, fired with indignation at the Philistines’ ill usage of Saul and the bodies of his sons: and went all night ; not only for secrecy, but for haste: and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh ; brought them with them thither, the Philistines either having no knowledge of it, or not daring to oppose them: and burnt them there : that is, the flesh of them, for the bones they buried, as in ( 1 Samuel 31:13); and this they did, contrary to the common usage of the country, which was not to burn; but this they did, that if the Philistines should come to recover them, they would not be able to do it: though the Targum is, “they burnt over them, as they burn over their kings there;” they made a burning for them of spices over them; or of their beds, and other household goods, as Kimchi and Ben Melech observe, though they prefer the other sense; (see 2 Chronicles 16:14 21:19) perhaps the true reason might be, because they were putrid and infectious.
Ver. 13 . And they took their bones, and buried [them] under a tree at Jabesh , etc.] For though they burned the bodies, yet so as to preserve the bones; and these, together with the ashes of the parts burnt, they gathered up, and buried under a tree near this city; this tree is said to be an oak, ( 1 Chronicles 10:12); so Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah, was buried under an oak, ( Genesis 35:8). The Jews generally interred their dead under some oak, as aforementioned writer observes f580 ; pleased perchance with the parallel, as he expresses it, that as these plants, seemingly dead in winter, have every spring an annual resurrection, so men’s dry bones shall have new sap put into them at the day of judgment: and fasted seven days ; not that they ate and drank nothing all that time, but they fasted every day till evening, as the Jews used to do; so long it seems a man may live without eating, but not longer; (see Gill on “ Exodus 24:18”) and see Gill “1 Kings 19:8” ; this they did, as Kimchi thinks, in memory of the seven days Nahash the Ammonite gave them for their relief, in which time Saul came and saved them, ( 1 Samuel 11:3).