When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.
(1 Samuel 31:11-13 NIV)
The tragedy of conflict bookends the 1st Epic of Samuel.
At the beginning of the book, after the miracle birth of Samuel, we see the consequences of a disobedient and unruly priesthood on the people of Israel. At the end of the book, after the death of Samuel, we see the consequences of a disobedient and unruly monarchy on the people of Israel.
Though the way Saul would end had already been prophesied, it does not detract from the tragedy of this final battle. His sons killed and he too has been mortally wounded, his last view of life is the ignominy of crushing defeat for him and for his people. His last words are a pitiful plea to be spared the shame of being killed directly by his enemy. His last act is to fall on his own sword when his final plea is met with a terrified resistance from his own armour-bearer.
The bravery of the men of Jabesh-Gilead to venture into the enemy stronghold to retrieve the beheaded body of the defeated King to give him a proper and honourable end speaks volumes of the regard with which they held him. For all his blemishes and flaws, the people acknowledged him as their King. Yet even in their regard, his immediate legacy was of a defeated and beleaguered nation. The enemy had taken over some of the towns and cities. The enemy had soundly defeated the army of Israel.
The first Epic of Samuel ends with the power and pomp of Israel appearing to resemble the final state of their first human King – in ashes.
At times it may appear as though life is a resounding defeat with all hopes and dreams in ashes. Yet the God who ruled Israel at the beginning of the first Epic of Samuel, is the same God who rules at the end of the first Epic. Even in defeat, He Who rules always points us to the sequel …
For His Name’s Sake
C. L. J. Dryden