David had successfully fought off the Amalekites and returned to his now burnt-out town of Ziklag. But what of Saul and his battle with the Philistines?
Saul had chosen Jezreel as his capital and had no doubt gathered his army there too. The Jezreel valley was a pleasant fertile area, but also the main east-west trade route from the Jordan to the coast; a route the Philistines eagerly wanted to control.
The Philistine army had set up camp just to the north at Shunem (1 Samuel 28:4). Saul took his army to the Gilboa ridge and it was from there that he could see the whole Philistine army spread before him and it was there that ‘he was afraid; terror filled his heart.’ Following Saul’s trip to the witch of Endor, battle commenced.
Read 1 Samuel 31:1-10
1 Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. 3 The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.
4 Saul said to his armour-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.’
But the armour-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. 5 When the armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. 6 So Saul and his three sons and his armour-bearer and all his men died together that same day.
7 When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 They cut off his head and stripped off his armour, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. 10 They put his armour in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.
The inhabitants of Beth Shan had abandoned their town and some may have sought refuge across the Jordan. When the men of Jabesh Gilead heard what had happened, with commendable bravery they marched at night into what was now Philistine occupied territory in order to recover the bodies of Saul and his sons and take them home with them.
Read 1 Samuel 31:11-13
11 When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 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. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.
When it was realised that Saul and his sons – including Jonathan – were dead, the rest of the Israelite army melted away into the surrounding country.
The Philistine victors (verse 9) ‘sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news’
This decisive battle was to mark a new chapter in the history of Israel, and later translators decided that it was appropriate to split the book of Samuel at this point. So we now start 2 Samuel.
Read 2 Samuel 1:1-10
1 After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days. 2 On the third day a man arrived from Saul’s camp with his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground to pay him honour.
3 ‘Where have you come from?’ David asked him.
He answered, ‘I have escaped from the Israelite camp.’
4 ‘What happened?’ David asked. ‘Tell me.’
‘The men fled from the battle,’ he replied. ‘Many of them fell and died. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead.’
5 Then David said to the young man who brought him the report, ‘How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?’
6 ‘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. 7 When he turned round and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, “What can I do?”
8 ‘He asked me, “Who are you?” ‘“An Amalekite,” I answered.
9 ‘Then he said to me, “Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.”
10 ‘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.’
Before we move on we need to look closely at this young man.
What nationality is he? (Amalekite – who have David just been fighting?)
There were often scavengers who would follow an army into battle, and who would pick over the dead wherever they could. This man was obviously watching what happened and could quickly steal the crown and armband before the Philistines came looking for Saul the next day.
What could he do with them? (Why not lie, saying he had killed Saul? – surely David would be pleased with him and reward him well.)
Now read 2 Samuel 1:13-16 (we’ll read 11-12 in a minute)
13 David said to the young man who brought him the report, ‘Where are you from?’
‘I am the son of a foreigner, an Amalekite,’ he answered.
14 David asked him, ‘Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?’
15 Then David called one of his men and said, ‘Go, strike him down!’ So he struck him down, and he died. 16 For David had said to him, ‘Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, “I killed the Lord’s anointed.”‘
It was too much for David. For a young man to proudly claim the honour of slaying the Lord’s anointed king, when twice David himself had refused to do so – he deserved to die.
Now read 2 Samuel 1:11-12
11 Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. 12 They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
Note in verse 12 the cumulative woes that hit David: he saw the destruction of Saul, then Jonathan, then The Army of the Lord and finally the downfall of the Nation of Israel. What was his response? Firstly to pour out a lament for Saul and his son.
Read 2 Samuel 1:17-27
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
19 ‘A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen!
20 ‘Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 ‘Mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised, the shield of Saul – no longer rubbed with oil.
22 ‘From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan –
in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
24 ‘Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 ‘How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.
27 ‘How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!’
What was David to do now?
Read 2 Samuel 2:1-7
1 In the course of time, David enquired of the Lord. ‘Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?’ he asked.
The Lord said, ‘Go up.’
David asked, ‘Where shall I go?’
‘To Hebron,’ the Lord answered.
Of course David knew he was destined to be King, but how would this happen? Very sensibly he asked the Lord what he should do.
2 So David went up there with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. 3 David also took the men who were with him, each with his family, and they settled in Hebron and its towns. 4 Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah.
When David was told that it was the men from Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul, 5 he sent messengers to them to say to them, ‘The Lord bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. 6 May the Lord now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favour because you have done this. 7 Now then, be strong and brave, for Saul your master is dead, and the people of Judah have anointed me king over them.’
David has been recognised as King over the south of Israel; now while praising the men of Trans-Jordan, he also lets them know that as king he will show favour to them.
But what of the rest of the country? With the King dead, it fell to the army to keep law and order and quickly establish a new king.
Read 2 Samuel 2:8-11
8 Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim. 9 He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel.
10 Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years. The tribe of Judah, however, remained loyal to David. 11 The length of time David was king in Hebron over Judah was seven years and six months.
Interestingly it seems that Abner and the remnants of the army had fled east across the Jordan to Mahanaim. The whereabouts of this town is uncertain but was probably in the same area as Jabesh Gilead.
This presented a tricky situation – there were now two kings and potentially two armies, and that couldn’t last for long. So Abner decided to make a bold move.
But before we go on, we need to go back a bit. Shortly after Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, a group of local ‘kings’ based on the town of Gibeon had tricked Joshua into agreeing a peace deal with them. Once the deception was uncovered, they were allowed to remain in their towns but would be forced to work as woodcutters and watercarriers (Joshua 9).
These towns effectively made a border between Benjamin and the northern tribes. (The tribe and land allocation of Benjamin would eventually be swallowed up as part of Judah).
It appears that earlier in the reign of Saul he had resented their presence and had all but wiped out the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1). Gibeon had been described (Joshua 10:2) as ‘an important city, like one of the royal cities; it was larger than Ai’ and so it would be an ideal place for Abner to occupy in order to establish his new king, positioned nicely between the northern and southern tribes.
Read 2 Samuel 2:12
12 Abner son of Ner, together with the men of Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, left Mahanaim and went to Gibeon.
It was obvious what Abner had in mind, so Joab, now in charge if David’s army, went to test the strength of this apparent threat to David. But both men were wary of starting a civil war.
Read 2 Samuel 2:13-16
13 Joab son of Zeruiah and David’s men went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. One group sat down on one side of the pool and one group on the other side.
14 Then Abner said to Joab, ‘Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.’
‘All right, let them do it,’ Joab said.
15 So they stood up and were counted – twelve men for Benjamin and Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, and twelve for David. 16 Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together. So that place in Gibeon was called Helkath Hazzurim.
Neither side was happy to accept this inconclusive result, so they simply attacked each other.
17 The battle that day was very fierce, and Abner and the Israelites were defeated by David’s men.
18 The three sons of Zeruiah were there: Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Now Asahel was as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle. 19 He chased Abner, turning neither to the right nor to the left as he pursued him. 20 Abner looked behind him and asked, ‘Is that you, Asahel?’
‘It is,’ he answered.
21 Then Abner said to him, ‘Turn aside to the right or to the left; take on one of the young men and strip him of his weapons.’ But Asahel would not stop chasing him.
22 Again Abner warned Asahel, ‘Stop chasing me! Why should I strike you down? How could I look your brother Joab in the face?’
23 But Asahel refused to give up the pursuit; so Abner thrust the butt of his spear into Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He fell there and died on the spot. And every man stopped when he came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died.
24 But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner, and as the sun was setting, they came to the hill of Ammah, near Giah on the way to the wasteland of Gibeon. 25 Then the men of Benjamin rallied behind Abner. They formed themselves into a group and took their stand on top of a hill.
26 Abner called out to Joab, ‘Must the sword devour for ever? Don’t you realise that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?’
27 Joab answered, ‘As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.’
28 So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the troops came to a halt; they no longer pursued Israel, nor did they fight any more.
29 All that night Abner and his men marched through the Arabah. They crossed the Jordan, continued through the morning hours and came to Mahanaim.
30 Then Joab stopped pursuing Abner and assembled the whole army. Besides Asahel, nineteen of David’s men were found missing. 31 But David’s men had killed 360 Benjaminites who were with Abner. 32 They took Asahel and buried him in his father’s tomb at Bethlehem. Then Joab and his men marched all night and arrived at Hebron by daybreak.
The Israelite army had quickly retreated back across the River Jordan, and David’s men also marched all night to gain the safety of Hebron. Everyone recognised it had been a totally useless show of strength – but it still left unfinished business.