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1 Samuel 27-31: The Greatest Tragedy Print E-mail
1 Samuel
Sunday, 09 July 2017

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Tragedy is a common part of the human experience. Bad things happen to everyone. Artists have been capitalizing on this fact for thousands of years. Shakespeare wrote plays where everyone dies in the end and people love them. Sad songs written in minor keys are just as popular today as they have always been. Because of our common experience with tragedy (the loss of health, the futility of life and work, the death of a loved one) we all can sympathize with the art of tragedy. It appeals to the masses because the masses have experienced such loss. In fact, we often scoff at happy endings because they feel so foreign to us. Why is tragedy so common? The Bible answers: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We suffer because we have sinned. So then the question is not who will suffer, but how will we respond to tragedy when it comes?

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The book of 1 Samuel closes with tragedy. Perhaps even Shakespeare himself was inspired by the ending of this book. The last five chapters walk us through the final days of the first king of Israel. We see his suffering and his poor response, which quickly leads to not only his death, but the death of his family and the defeat of Israel as well. At the same time, the author is also telling us the story of the second king of Israel, the man after Godís own heart. His story involves tragedy as well. But his response is contrasted with that of Saulís. Neither man is perfect and both of their lives are full of tragedy. Yet, we can learn from their different responses. Letís consider those together this morning.

Davidís response to tragedy

The story begins with David fleeing to Gath again. Look at 27:1. David tried this once before and it did not go well (see 21:10-15), so why try it again? The author does not tell us exactly why David goes back to Gath, but surely it is some combination of weariness, desperation, and doubt. Running from Saul has taken its toll on David and his men, so they see if the Philistines will take them in this time. And they do. Achish, the king of Gath, gives David permission to live in the city of Ziklag, which he does for over a year. Meanwhile, David his men regularly go out and make war on Israelís enemies. The Lord gives them success and David convinces the king that he is actually fighting against Israel and their allies. It seems like a pretty sweet set-up and we are even told that Saul gave up his pursuit of David.

But a problem arises. Look at 28:1-2. Everything was fine as long as David could keep up the deception that he was fighting the Israelites. But now the king wants him to fight with the Philistines against Israel. That is a problem. How can the Lordís anointed fight against the Lordís people? How can the man after Godís own heart make war against Godís own people? Maybe fleeing to Gath was not such a good idea after all.

To add to the suspense, the author switches scenes and returns to the story of Saul in the rest of chapter 28, which we will look at in a minute. Yet, he returns to Davidís dilemma in chapter 29. Look at verses 1-5. Achish is convinced of Davidís loyalty, once again showing how easily he could be fooled, but the other leaders are not. They remember the song that used to be sung about David. They would not allow him to fight. When Achish informs David of their decision, David pretends to be upset, but he obeys the king and takes his men back to Ziklag. At this point, the reader is relieved and sees Godís providential hand at work again in Davidís life. He can keep up the deception without having to make war on Israel.

Yet, before we can even feel good about that, we get news of a terrible tragedy in Davidís life. Look at 30:1-6a. While David and his men were away preparing for battle, the Amalekites were getting their revenge. You remember the Amalekites, right? They were the ones that Saul spared in disobedience to God. And now they had Davidís wives and the families of all his men. These strong warriors wept until they had no more strength to weep. Donít miss that. Donít skip over their despair. It is a tragedy. And they are so broken up and angry that some of them were ready to stone David. So what does David do? Where does the man after Godís own heart turn in the face of such tragedy? Look at the rest of verse 6.

David flees to God. Saul has run him out of Israel. Achish has chased him off the battlefield. Even his own men are ready to take him out. Where can he flee? Perhaps he prayed something like he wrote in Psalm 25: ĎTurn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. Consider how many are my foes (Saul, Philistines, Amalekites, own men) and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in youí (v. 16-20). David responds to his tragedy by crying out to the Lord. He calls in the priest and has him ask the Lord if he should pursue the Amalekites. Look at verse 8. The rest of chapter 30 tells the story of David finding his enemies through Godís help and recovering all that he and his men had lost. The tragedy turns into triumph for David through His trust in God. Again, he is not perfect as a man, but he does give us a good model of where to run when tragedy strikes.

Saulís response to tragedy

So what about Saul? How does the story play out for him? It begins with the news that the Philistines are going to attack. Look at 28:3-5. This is a bad situation and Saul knows it, so how does he respond? Well, in one sense, he responds like David by crying out to God. Yet, as we have seen in Saulís life repeatedly, his trust in God is half-hearted. Look at what happens in verses 6-7. This is a sad reality. The King of Israel cries out to God and the Lord did not answer him. So Saul gets desperate and decides to take matters into his own hand. Even though he knew it was wrong to use mediums and necromancers (after all he had drove them out of the land, v. 3), he was willing to try at this point. His men tell him of a witch at Endor and Saul disguises himself and goes to see her. When she refuses to help him at first, he promises her (by the Lord no less) that she will be fine.

Look at what happens in verses 11-14. Saul asks to see Samuel and Samuel appears. The witch is shocked and scared when she sees Samuel (perhaps because she did not believe he would really appear, but more likely because she realizes that she is talking with Saul). She describes Samuel and Saul knows that it is him. Instead of getting too distracted by various questions, I think we need to take the text as it is: Saul cannot hear from the Lord and uses wicked means to talk with Saul who does appear to him. The Bible does not deny the ability of mediums explicitly, but it clearly condemns the practice, even as we see in this case.

So what do they say to each other? We see the great tragedy of the situation in verse 15. Look at that with me. The great tragedy of our sin is that it separates us from God. Saulís disobedience to Godís word has cut him off from Godís presence. And what does Samuel say to him in response? He tells him again what he has already told him. Look at verses 16-19. This is what disobedience does to a man. It drives him from Godís presence and brings destruction in the lives of those around him. God will punish Saul for not obeying Him in regard to the Amalekites. Now hereís the crazy thing. At the same time that God is once again pronouncing judgment on Saul through Samuel for his disobedience concerning the Amalekites, guess where David is headed? Thatís right, he is making his way to the Amalekite camp where he will destroy Godís enemies and recapture his wives and the families of his men. Saul is rejected for his disobedience and David is blessed for his faith. The author wants us to see this contrast.

After relating the story of Davidís victory over the Amalekites, we see the final act of Saulís tragedy in chapter 31. And it plays out exactly how God said that it would. The Philistines attack Israel and completely overrun them. Look at verses 1-6. It is a hard ending to a hard life. The first king of Israel dies on the battlefield in a terrible defeat because the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines (28:19). He dies with his sons, including faithful Jonathan, just as the Lord had said. It is a tragedy. Even though the men of Jabesh-gilead rescue their bodies from the Philistines (no doubt to honor what Saul had done for them, see 11:1-11), the book still ends with tragedy. Saul, the first king of Israel, is dead, along with all of his sons.

Of course, the story is not over. We will continue to see Godís work in the life of David as we work through 2 Samuel. Yet, what do we make of these tragedies at the end of 1 Samuel? What can we learn? From Saul we learn the hard lesson of the greatest tragedy of humanity: our sin has separated us from God. This is the ugliness of disobedience to God. This is the terrible impact of our rebellion. We are removed from Godís presence because of our sin. Do not make light of that. Own it. Believe it. And like David, cry out to God for help. The glorious good news is that even through the tragedy of the first king of Israel, God still has a plan to send us a Savior. Davidís greater Son, Jesus, will taste tragedy as well. In fact, He will suffer under the consequences of our sin when He is forsaken by the Father on the cross. His life will end in tragedy and three dark days in a cold grave. But tragedy will not be the final word. After those three days, the Father will raise Him victorious over the grave and make Him our Prophet, Priest, and King. Through repentance and faith in Him, we can enjoy the presence of God both now and forever more. Will you embrace that triumph over tragedy? Will you turn away from your disobedience and place your faith in Jesus? The good news is Godís triumph over the human tragedy of sin through the death and resurrection of His Son. Believe in Him today! Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 21 July 2017 )

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