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The Death of King Saul

Before we look at how King Saul’s mental illness affected his children, I thought we should look at his death. In my first post in the Return to King Saul series, I mentioned that his death ended in assisted suicide. Well, after rereading 1 and 2 Samuel more closely, I remembered that was only partly true. Let’s dive in to the accounts of the death of King Saul.

The Passage

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.

Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”

But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that day.

1 Samuel 31:1-6 NIV

Then David said to the young man who brought him the report, “How do you know that Saul and Jonathan are dead?”

“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’

“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’

‘”An Amalekite,’ I answered.

“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’

“So I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”

2 Samuel 1: 5-10 NIV

Two Accounts: The Death of King Saul

Both 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel note that Saul requested to die. Per his encounter with the ghost of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28, Saul knows he and his sons will die in this battle. He has lost his last hope of redemption. Fear overtakes him. Saul refuses to eat (a sign of his depression) until the medium and his men talk him into it. Saul leads the Israelites into battle the next day, but they flee in fear. Ultimately, the Philistines wound him, and the stress of battle compounds Saul’s existing mental health issues. He wishes to die.

Now, it gets a bit confusing with the two different accounts of the death of King Saul. Bearing in mind David’s fight with the thieving Amalekites just a few days earlier in 1 Samuel 30, I believe the messenger here is an opportunist. He reports nuggets of truth like Saul’s wounds and request to die. However, 1 Samuel records more definitively that Saul’s armor-bearer confirmed his death and that the Philistines stripped Saul of his armor before plastering his body on the wall. (Not my idea of fashionable decor.) Plus, Saul’s punishment of losing the battle comes because he failed to wipe out the Amalekites in the beginning (see 1 Samuel 28:18.) I have no doubt that this young messenger just wants to pounce on the opportunity for power in an unstable political landscape. Thankfully, David notices and makes sure that doesn’t happen. (Ahem, cue the sword.)

The Depression Wins

Regardless of which account you read, Saul requests for others on his side of the battle lines to help him die. He is understandably terrified of what the Philistines would do to him. In fact, the Philistines do cut apart his body and chop off his head; they just waited until his body started decomposing. (Yuck, politics.) Despite being a situation so gruesome that I’m trying to find humor in it, the death of King Saul really illustrates how deep his fears and negative thinking ran. Even his death is overshadowed by fear; no Braveheart moments for Mount Gilboa. The victory of the Philistines parallels the victory of depression in King Saul’s life. He just couldn’t beat it, so he gives in.

King Saul’s story doesn’t end there. On Wednesday, we’ll look at how Saul’s battle with depression affects his son Jonathan.

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