The End of the Beginning

I Samuel 31 - II Samuel 1

November 19, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

The year was 1943. Slowly the Allied forces were squeezing the Germans out of North Africa. From the east Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery’s British forces sent Rommel’s Nazi tanks reeling in retreat across the Libyan desert. From the west a little-known American general named Eisenhower rallied his men after the humiliation at Kasserine Pass. From Egypt the British moved west; from Casablanca and Algiers the Americans moved east. Eventually they squeezed the Germans into Tunisia in a giant pincers movement. In a series of fierce battles in May 1943 thousand of Germans were killed or captured while others fled to Sicily and Italy. It was the first great Allied victory of World War II.

Six months earlier, Winston Churchill had spoken to England about what the attack on North Africa meant. He knew that it was only the first step in a long battle that must eventually include an invasion of Europe and the total destruction of the Third Reich. These were his words: “This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

That is how I feel as I come to the end of this series on the early years of the life of David. This is not the end of the story, or even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning. When first we met David, he was a shepherd on the hills outside Bethlehem. As we leave him, he is ready to become king of Israel. In between we have traced his slow rise from obscurity to prominence. Along the way we have identified the principles God built into his life and the lessons David needed to learn. And now we have come to the end of the beginning.

Here are the principles we have learned so far from the early years of David’s life:

1) Sovereign Grace: God chooses those whom the world overlooks to do his will.

2) Providence: God is able to find us no matter where we are and he is able to put us in the place where we can be most effective for him.

3) Active Faith: Impossible giants can be defeated when we use what God has given us and do battle in the name of the Lord.

4) Submission to God: Our best response when others turn against us is to do what we know is right and trust God with the results.

5) True Friendship: God reveals his will by using good friends to protect us in times of trouble.

6) Danger of Deceit: Whenever we try to justify a lie on the basis of expediency, someone is going to have to pay the price.

7) Invisible Intervention: Even in the wilderness, God is with us. He works through difficult circumstances to teach us to trust him.

8) Sparing Our Enemies: We honor the Lord when we refuse to attack those who have attacked us.

9) Non-retaliation: When we leave revenge with the Lord, he handles it better than we do.

10) Loving Our Enemies: Love finds a way and takes a risk on behalf of those who will never say thanks.

11) Retribution: When we sow the seeds of compromise, we can expect to reap a harvest of destruction.

12) Restoring Grace: God welcomes his wayward children whenever they turn to him with deep repentance and a new desire to serve him wholeheartedly.

David’s final lesson comes from one of the saddest moments of his life as he learns that Saul and Jonathan are dead. As we study his response, we will see the greatness of his faith.

I. Saul’s Tragic Suicide I Samuel 31

When last we met David, he was returning to Ziklag to rebuild the city after it had been burned by the Amalekites. That whole episode was one of the lowest points of his entire life as he learned from experience how bitter is the fruit of compromise. Now he returns with his men and begins the process of rebuilding. They never finish the job because on the third day word comes that Saul is dead. That means the time has come for David to return to Israel. The throne at last is empty.

The story of Saul’s death is given to us in I Samuel 31. “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa” (v. 1). One battle note. That verse does not mean the men of Israel were cowards. What it means is that they were vastly outnumbered, fighting against superior numbers and superior weaponry. Evidently the main battle took place on the plain of Jezreel with Saul and his key officers stationed on the lower slopes of Gilboa. That was good strategy as long as the battle stayed fairly even. Once it turned against Israel and the men fled up the mountainside, there was no way of escape, and a slaughter ensued.

“The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua” (v. 2). What a picture this is. Slowly the battle turns and the men of Israel are in full retreat up the slopes. Saul is there shouting instructions and fighting alongside his sons. The Philistines attack, attack, attack, each time coming closer. At length they close in on the king. Saul watches as his sons fall at his feet one by one. He fights on alone.

“The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically” (v. 3). That last point is crucial-that Saul was critically wounded-because what is about to happen will make Saul look very bad. In fact, Saul is remembered more for what happens next than for anything else he ever did. “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’” (v. 4). In order to fully understand this, one point needs to be made. The Philistines were a bloodthirsty bunch. If they do find Saul alive, they will subject him to unspeakable torture before he dies. Saul’s fears are fully justified.

“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 three of his sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that day” (vv. 5-6). It is a scene reminiscent of the Alamo, brave men fighting for their country, vastly outnumbered, going down to death in a blaze of glory. The comparison is apt because that’s indeed how David views the matter-Saul and his men died the death of heroes defending their homeland.

Having said that, the fact must be faced that Saul committed suicide. There is no other way to say it. Yes, it was in wartime, and yes, it was in view of possible atrocities, but it is still suicide. And that raises a critical question: Is suicide a sin? The answer is yes. In all the pages of the Bible, there are only four or five cases to consider-Saul being the most prominent in the Old Testament and Judas the most prominent in the New Testament. If you ask why suicide is wrong, the answer is that life itself is a gift of God and no one has the right to destroy that which God has given as a gift. It is true that there is no verse which says, “Thou shalt not commit suicide” for the simple reason that the Hebrews didn’t need a verse like that. They understood that every man was made in the image of God. Suicide was covered under the general commandment-“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Suicide is self-murder and thus a transgression of the Sixth Commandment.

For Saul, his suicide was the logical end of a long process of self-destruction. That, of course, is the saddest fact about Saul. You could hardly find in all the Bible a man who started with as many natural advantages. Chosen by God to be Israel’s first king, he was a tremendous physical specimen, a great leader of men, a mighty warrior, and enormously popular with the people. We know that in the beginning God’s spirit rested upon him. Saul is a case study of the principle that a good beginning does not guarantee a good end. It isn’t enough to have great potential. It isn’t enough to show great promise. It’s what you do with your potential and what happens after the good beginning that makes the difference. The story of Saul is a tragedy precisely because he had so much going for him. As the poet said, “Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.” Indeed, Saul might have been a great king, he might have bent his ambition to do the will of God.

But instead he was headstrong, impulsive, suspicious, and given to fits of uncontrollable anger. Eventually his dark side grew until it shut out the light. Envy rotted his bones. In the end, he is a pathetic, sad figure. In that sense, his suicide was simply the final stop on a long journey to destruction. Ponder the corpse of Saul lying on Gilboa’s slopes. It is a silent warning to all of us.

David’s Spontaneous Grief 2 Samuel 1

Saul’s suicide is well known. To this day, people who know nothing else about Saul know that he killed himself. What is not so well known is how David received the news. That story is given to us in II Samuel 1.

David narrowly missed being in this very battle because the Philistine generals decided at the last minute they couldn’t trust him. So they sent him back to Ziklag while they went to battle against Saul. It is when he gets back that he discovers the village is burned. Meanwhile the battle takes place and Saul is killed on Mount Gilboa. Three days later a man comes running into the village with his clothes torn and dust on his head. He has come, he says, with news from the battlefield. The news is that Israel has been defeated and Saul and Jonathan are dead. Here is his story:

“’I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,’ the young man said, ’and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and riders almost upon him. 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 over me and kill me! I am in the throes of death, but I am still alive.” So I stood over him and killed him, because I knew 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.’” (vv. 6-10)

The most important thing for you to know is that this man is a liar. He didn’t kill Saul. That much is certain. We already know how Saul died. He committed suicide. Why, then, would a man make up a story like this? The answer is simple: He made it up because he thought David would be glad to hear that Saul was dead. After all, that’s how most of us would react if we heard that our worst enemy had suddenly died.

What happened is this: The Amalekite was near the battlefield and saw Saul and his men die. The Philistines didn’t come back until the next day. It was during that interim period that he found Saul’s body, took the crown and band, and brought it to David-no doubt hoping for some kind of reward. As I say, it made sense on a human level to expect David to rejoice.

If you think David was happy to hear of Saul’s death, just ask the Amalekite. Of course, you’ll have to dig him up to ask him because that’s where he ended up. A long time ago David had made a decision that he was going to support God’s program in the world. He was God’s man and that meant he would show respect for those whom God had placed over him. That’s why he refused to kill Saul when he had the chance. So when this Amalekite comes with the story that he killed Saul, David says to one of his men, “Waste him.” And that was the end of that. They killed the Amalekite on the spot.

Lest you think David is simply responding in anger, read on. The last half of II Samuel 1 is called the Song of the Bow. It is a poem David composed on hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan. He wrote it and then ordered that the men of Judah learn it by heart. It is a funeral dirge. We would call it a eulogy. If you want an insight into David’s heart, read these verses. The theme is repeated three times-“How the mighty are fallen” (vv. 19, 25, 27).

He begins by saying, “Tell it not in Gath … lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad.” (v. 20) Gath was the Philistine capital. David’s main concern is the tragic death of Saul not become an occasion for the enemies of God to rejoice. Therefore, he says, keep it quiet.

That is a good word for today. In the last few years we have experienced a series of sad and sometimes shocking scandals in the Christian community. And some of us have been too quick to share the news. “Did you hear that Jack and Sandy are getting a divorce?” “Did you know their daughter got pregnant at college?” “He lost his job because he couldn’t get along with his boss.” “I think she’s started drinking again.” And on and on and on it goes. How quick we are to spread bad news, how slow to spread the good. It is all too easy for us to gloat when a Christian brother who we don’t like falls into sin. That sort of thing not only demeans us but it harms the cause of Christ. Whenever a good man falls, it gives the scoffers another reason to laugh at the Christian faith.

Please take this to heart. You don’t have to share every piece of bad news you hear. So what if it’s true? Why not keep it to yourself? “Tell it not in Gath!” Keep it to yourself. Shhhhh. Be quiet. Keep your mouth closed about the weaknesses of others. Unless there is an actual biblical reason, and unless you are telling the news to the right people at the right time in order to bring about justice and to promote healing, why not just keep it to yourself? Not everything needs to be broadcast. And even if it’s true, you don’t have to share it with all your friends.

Then David rehearses the death of Saul and Jonathan and says a good word about each man. The key is what he says about Saul. Before we go on, just remember that Saul chased him for ten years trying to kill him. He hunted David like an animal and certainly would have killed him if he had had the opportunity. Now he is dead. Many of us would say, “Good riddance. Let me tell you what that bum was really like.” But David doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t say a word about what Saul had done to him. Not a word. It is as if the memory has been erased from his mind.

When David writes his eulogy, he dwells on three of Saul’s admirable traits: First, his courage in battle. “The sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied” (v. 22). Second, his close relationship with Jonathan. “Saul and Jonathan-in life they were loved and gracious and in death they were not parted” (v. 23). Third, his advancement of the nation in prosperity. “O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold” (v. 24).

The great thing is what this eulogy does not say. David does not mention the things that brought Saul to a disgraceful end. He loved Saul too much to bring it up now. He will only speak of the good that Saul did while he was alive.

What is the principle at work here? It is the principle of honoring those whom God has used in your life even when they have turned against you. In this case that meant honoring a man whose major goal in life had been to kill David. And yet the principle stands: From Saul, and through Saul, and because of Saul, God had been working in David’s life. Saul had been God’s instrument to prepare David for the throne. If David was a diamond in the rough, then Saul was God’s chisel to remove the rough edges and expose the beauty within. Indeed, God had chosen David to be king and he had also chosen Saul to be the unwitting instrument of preparation.

If you put together the various lessons David has learned, three of them go together. When David spared Saul’s life in the cave at En Gedi (I Samuel 24), God was teaching him to spare his enemies. When David snuck into the camp after midnight and took the spear but did not kill Saul (I Samuel 26), God was teaching him to love his enemies. And now that Saul is dead (II Samuel 1), God is teaching David to honor his enemies. First to spare, then to love, then to honor. Great, Greater, Greatest. This last lesson is the highest point of the spiritual life, and many of us never reach it.

When David looks back and weeps for Saul and remembers his good accomplishments, he is not denying the evil he did. Indeed, the record has been written for 3,000 years. But David will have no part in defaming Saul’s memory. Let others draw their own conclusions, but David will speak no evil.

What David is doing simply illustrates the words of Paul in I Corinthians 13:5, “Love … keeps no record of wrongs” Love doesn’t keep score: love has a quick eraser. Some years ago I remember hearing my college pastor, Dr. Lee Roberson, tell how he used to loan students money for various purposes-tuition, books, family expenses, things like that. He said that whenever a student asked him for money, he would get an I.O.U. from the student and put it in his wallet. Human nature being what it is, after awhile his wallet was stuffed with I.O.U.s from men who borrowed money but didn’t pay it back. Dr. Roberson said eventually every time he looked in his wallet, those I.O.U.s made him mad. Finally he solved the problem by simply taking them all out, tearing them up, and throwing them away. Better, he said, to lose the money than to lose your peace of mind. That’s true. Love does not keep a record of wrongs suffered.

I think we can say it this way. David ended up with a huge stack of I.O.U.s from Saul. When he died, David tore up those slips of paper and never thought about them again. What was done was done. The past was over and could not be changed. But David would not let the bitterness control his life. He chose to remember Saul’s good points and he chose to forget everything else.

And the lesson is, Go and do likewise. Incidentally, after I preached the sermon a man came up to my wife and said he had been deeply affected by this message. Then he pressed a piece of paper into her hands and asked her to give it to me. It was an I.O.U. from a friend who owed him $300. I don’t know any other details but I assume he has decided not to let that unpaid debt steal the joy from his heart. This doesn’t mean that all of us should forgive every debt owed to us, but it does mean that some things are more important than other things. When the wrongs committed against us are beginning to weigh us down and suck out the joy, leaving us only the ugly residue of hardened bitterness, then it’s time to choose by God’s grace to let go so we can move on with life. Better to suffer a temporary loss than to be stuck forever, chained to the past by the misdeeds of others.

III. Lessons from a Long Journey

David is now ready to be king. Now that Saul is dead, the road to the throne is open at last. With that we bid David farewell. The years of preparation have come to an end and he is ready to fulfill God’s call on his life. As we stand back and look at the long journey from the sheepfolds of Bethlehem to the throne of Israel, two great principles stand out that summarize what we’ve learned from the early years of David’s life.

A) When God wants to prepare us to do a job for him, he is never in a hurry.

At least ten years-and maybe more-passed between the time God told David he would be king and the time he actually ascended to the throne. The years in between were years of training and preparation. Ten years is a long time to us, but to God a thousand years is as a day.

I read a while back that a Texas oilman and his wife visited Oxford University while on a trip to England. The oilman asked the greens keeper how he achieved such beautiful lawns. The greens keeper replied: “We plant a seed. We water it. We mow it. We water it-for 500 years.” If you want to raise bean sprouts, you can do it in a week. If you want oak trees, it will take a lifetime.

My friend, be encouraged. God knows what he’s doing in your life. You probably don’t have the full picture. No matter. He does, and he won’t stop until he’s finished. And nothing you can do will hurry him along.

B) When God wants to prepare us for royalty, his best tool is adversity.

We see it in David’s life. No less do we see it in your life and in mine. As I write these words we are only a few days away from Thanksgiving. As I look back over the last 12 months and think of all that has happened, I can truthfully say that while I have experienced many blessings, there have been some difficult moments as well. Laughter and tears have come in about equal measure as have the good times and the hard times. Many of us, I’m sure, could say the same thing. And I suppose that some of us come to Thanksgiving mainly thankful that we have survived the last 12 months. This isn’t a complaint but rather an observation on reality. As Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, to everything there is a time and a season. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. Sometimes we build up, sometimes we tear down. Sometimes we embrace, sometimes we refrain from embracing. If you live long enough, you’ll see it all and probably live through it all.

David’s life reminds us that adversity and spiritual growth often go together. We see in his life what we see in our own lives-God is at work and he is in no hurry. God is at work and his best tool is adversity. It may take awhile and the road may be bumpy, but there’s a crown and a throne for those who persevere.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?