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J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson II

Saul's Gloomy End

The portions referred to.
Also parts of 1 Samuel XXVIII., XXXI.

§ 1. An Evil Spirit from the Lord

D O you think you could put into words, now, the chief lesson of King Saul's life? (Try to make pupils express it in their own words—that young people may start with many good gifts of God, position, opportunities, endowments, attractive gifts of body and mind—even with good desires, and aspirations, the gift of God's Holy Spirit to bless them—and yet that they may spoil their lives utterly, why? Because there is something in the inner shrine and centre of each one's being that belongs to one's own self, something at the centre of the will that God Himself will not overrule or force. We must each for himself surrender our own hearts to God. And if we do not God has to wait and wait, and see His good gifts wasted, and see us suffering failure and sorrow, and remorse and pain, until at last some day—perhaps when the boys and girls have grown to be dissatisfied men and women—some day they find out that their life is a big mistake, and that the love of the Father has been waiting all the time, and so perhaps their hearts are touched at last to cry to Him "Lord, whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is none on earth that I desire in comparison of Thee.")

In this life, at any rate, Saul never got thus far, and so his life was spoiled. We read in the last chapter that he had drifted so far from God's life-plan for him that Samuel had to denounce on him the stern anger of God, and warn him that another should take his place as king. This was the severest blow of Saul's life. And the sad thing in it is that it led to no repentance, no sorrow for having disappointed God. What one sees is rather bitterness, and peevishness, and a feeling of being ill-treated, and, later on, a jealous watching for the rival who should displace him. From this time forward we see him growing sullen and gloomy and suspicious—sometimes even violent.

See chapter xvi. 14. "The Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him." Do you think that same thing happens to men now? Yes, just the same. A man's sins harden his heart, and close up as it were the avenues through which the Holy Spirit helps men. Then comes the misery of conscience tormenting him, and, because he won't obey it, darkening his life with remorse, and making his future full of weariness and troubled apprehension. Do you think it strange to call it an evil spirit from the Lord? I think anything that torments us, and frightens us, and keeps us from resting in our sins, is from the Lord; even the horrible delirium tremens  that comes on a drunkard, and terrifies him with the horrors of hell here on earth.

§ 2. Jealousy

Now David comes into Saul's life. But we shall have David's story afterwards. At present I want to keep your attention on Saul, and shall refer to David only when necessary for this purpose.

David first meets the king after the fight with Goliath of Gath (ch.  xvii.), where already you see Saul was beginning to show his gloom and despondency (v.  11). Saul at first took a great fancy to the boy, and made him his armour-bearer, little knowing what was in the future, and David's harp was a great comfort to the king when his black fits of temper and despondency were on him. David rose in military life from post to post till he became a famous captain (ch. xviii.) and won victory and glory, and the enthusiasm of the people. Then Saul grew jealous, remembering the old days when all shouted in enthusiasm for himself. Then one unfortunate day, as David returned from a victorious expedition against the Philistines, the king overheard the song of victory, and unluckily caught the words of the song "Saul hath slain his thousands but David his ten thousands." He was very angry. One does not wonder. Then I think it was that the keen suspicion first flashed on him. "Could this be the threatened rival to the throne?"  "What can he have more but the kingdom?" cries the jealous king, "And Saul eyed David from that day forward" (ch. xviii. 6-9).

From that day he grew still more fierce and gloomy. Gradually the brooding gloom and ill-temper grew into violence—into a sort of semi-insanity that darkened his later life. It is awful to see how evil tempers grow towards madness. I have known people going on with peevishness and ill-temper till they grew half mad. Look at Saul (vv.  10, 11). On the morrow in his rage he flung a javelin at David. Then (v.  12) he grew afraid of David because the Lord was with him, and the people loved him. Then his elder daughter Merab was to marry David, and Saul gave her to another. Then his younger daughter Michal fell in love with David, and Saul first tried by a trick to get him killed by the Philistines (xviii. 22), and then (xix. 11) laid an ambush to murder him in his house with his young wife. It is perfectly awful to see how rapidly Saul fell. One hopes that, perhaps, he was only partly to blame, that perhaps this semi-madness might partly excuse him. It is hard to distinguish the border-line between fierce ill-temper and madness. One grows into the other.

David had to flee for his life (xix. 18). The priests at Nob were kind to him (ch.  xxi.), but Doeg, Saul's body-servant, the man it is said who was with him when seeking his asses, saw this and reported the priests to Saul (xxii. 9), and the cruel, half mad king commanded Doeg to slaughter them. Then began the long persecution of David when year after year Saul's soldiers hunted him over mountain and desert to take his life. All this we shall learn more fully in the Story of David.

Ah! poor, foolish, mad, wicked Saul who had cast away God's good gifts! And yet he was not all bad. It is so touching to see the good in the man struggling with the evil. Again the Spirit of the Lord came upon him as he was chasing David, as if to show that God never gives a man up, and he returned quiet and subdued for a while. Then twice over we read of days when he lay in David's power, and David refused to hurt him—once when he lay asleep and David stole down to him and carried off his spear—once when he came into the dark cave, and David cut off his robe, but did not hurt him. And it is touching to see how the king's hardening heart was touched, and the old generous heart showed itself again. "Is it thy voice, my son David, return to me, I have sinned, I have played the fool." And he lifted up his voice and wept (ch.  xxiv. 16). But in a few days he was as bad as ever.

Remember, young people, that all this is happening in the same way to‑day. A man's life is growing worse. The better nature is being slowly destroyed. Yet it keeps at times flashing out like this. And these flashes of good are God's reminders of His high purpose for the man. They are showing him what he might be; what God wants him to be. Ah! if Saul would but turn and obey God still! It was such a pity! He had so much of the generous and good in him. But he spoiled it all.

§ 3. Unhappy Old Age

Now we are drawing near the end. The clouds are setting black and heavy in the evening of his life on this poor, wicked, wayward king who had sinned away his opportunities. God has rejected him, the people are losing trust in him, his best friends have fled from him, David, the friend of his early days, is hiding from him. Samuel, who mourned for him, has been two years in his grave. He is alone except for Jonathan, the brave, unselfish son who watched over him always. And remorse for all his evil is strong within him. Life has grown very dreary for Saul, as it usually does in advancing years for every irreligious man.

Young people, be sure that this is so. You may be gay enough in your bright young days without religion. But you can't go on thus as you grow old. You can only pretend. Thank God for that. He will not let us be happy away from Him. He has made us for himself, and if we persist in doing without Him we must be dissatisfied and unhappy in older years. The Devil has no happy old people.

Many troubles were coming on Saul. He had been a great warrior. He had inspired high enthusiasm in his soldiers and deep dread in his enemies, But as he grew older, his powers failed. The enthusiasm and the dread died down. The enemies whom he once scattered began to close in on him like dogs on a dying stag. The Philistines from the five towns are advancing in a combined movement. Saul is on Mount Gilboa with his army, a dispirited army because led by a dispirited king. Two hundred years ago Gideon had gathered his little troop on that same field, and by his daring and enthusiasm for God and right had swept the Midianite raiders from the land, But there was no Gideon now, Saul had lost heart; "when he saw the camp of the Philistines he was afraid and his heart trembled exceedingly." Not that he was a coward. No, but he had lost heart. The evil tempers indulged had filled his life with gloom. He knew not where to turn. The spirit of the Lord had departed from him, and when he inquired of the Lord the Lord answered him not.

§ 4. The Witch of Endor

And then a strange thing happened. Yet not strange, just what happens to‑day also. The man who has lost his religion often turns with credulity to some grotesque superstition. It is a curious thing. But I think it is a sort of punishment. Our souls are made for God and His teaching, and if we will not let the soul have that it will often seek some foolish imitation to satisfy itself.

So with Saul. In his earlier days he had destroyed the witches out of the land. But away in one of the half-heathen corners of the land there still lived one of them, the "Witch of Endor" she was called. In the dead of night as she pursued her incantations, three mysterious visitors came to her cabin, cloaked and disguised. One of them, the chief, was tall and kingly. His face was hidden in his cloak. The witch watches him sharply. "Call up for me," he asks, "from the land beyond the grave, Samuel the Prophet!"

I have no intention here of discussing the question of Modern Spiritualism as to whether it is possible to communicate with the spirits departed. I believe we have hints in the Bible that our dear ones departed know about us (e.g. Hebrews xii. 1). I think they watch over us and help us, and probably in the mysterious Paradise Land win blessings for us by their prayers. I think the spirit world is all around us much nearer than we think. If I were ever offered clear evidence I should see no difficulty in believing that they could communicate with us.

I can only say that in passing. However, in this case, whether it was a special miracle or not, you cannot doubt that the historian, at any rate, believed in a real coming of Samuel. I don't think it was Saul's great longing that brought him. If that could bring them—ah! they would often come to us. It is all mysterious. But just as the Bible says (Luke ix. 30) that Moses and Elias came out of the great Waiting Life to stand with our Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration and talk of His decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem, so too, I think, the Bible means to say that Samuel came. It ought not to seem so strange. The strange thing to me is that they are not always breaking through into our world when they must know that our hearts are longing for knowledge of them. But God knows best why they do not come.

Is not it very sad to see poor Saul turning to witches for knowledge after forsaking God? And is it not very touching to see him in his sore extremity turn to the one true friend of his youth for comfort, to hear him pleading with Samuel in his lonely misery. "I am sore distressed," he cries, "for the Philistines make war on me, and God is departed from me and answereth me no more." It nearly brings tears into one's eyes to hear him.

But there seems no cry of repentance—only of deep gloom and misery. And from the Unseen Land the old prophet repeats and deepens the doom: "The Lord shall deliver Israel into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me" in the world of the departed. Then Saul fell straightway all along the earth and was sore afraid because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength left in him.

§ 5. Gilboa

Not much help in that awful night to nerve him for to‑morrow's battle. Do you remember Richard III, the night before Bosworth Field, as the ghosts of the dead came to him in his dreams to remind him of his evil deeds and threaten to "sit heavy on his sword to‑morrow." So was the night before Gilboa to the doomed Saul.

This is the last scene in our story of Saul—the last glimpse of him ere the fast gathering darkness settles on him for ever. It is the evening of the battle. The Israelites are flying in all directions before the victorious foe, and the grim old warrior king is standing alone. The crown is on his head, the royal bracelet on his arm. He is leaning on his great battle spear—leaning heavily, for he has received his death-wound. The battle is lost. Jonathan, the thoughtful, loving son who never left him, is lying dead before him, with his two brothers at his side. What is there left to live for any more? So the weary old king "took his sword and fell upon it and he died." And there was no royal funeral, no "Dead March in Saul" to thrill men at his grave. There he lay neglected on the hill side till the Philistines found him and nailed up his body in their idol temple.

That was the end. A gloomy end. He had spoiled his life, wasted his opportunities, forsaken his God. Who would have predicted such a fate thirty years before when he stood forth on his Coronation Day amid the shouts of an enthusiastic people? O young people, life is very solemn for us all, and no man can waste and spoil it without an awful reckoning time. We have nothing to do with his final fate. St. Bernard and others of old declared that he was eternally lost. We must not be wise above what is written. Even without that his fate is awful enough, the fate to which the stern love of God sends every impenitent man when he dies, for the man's own good you may be sure. The judgment of Saul is still in the future, and "to the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness though we have rebelled against Him."

(Read portions referred to above.)

Questions for Lesson II

What first roused Saul's jealousy against David?

How did he show it?

Was Saul entirely bad? Notice any signs of good in him.

What is the story about the Witch of Endor?

Describe Saul's death.

How do you account for the good in him and how for the evil?