Promising Start, Poor Finish — 1 Samuel 28-31

I guess I had never noticed the phenomenon, until I read Steve Farrar’s book, Finishing Strong; but there is in both the Bible and in my own real life experience not just a “Hall of Fame” but also a “Hall of ‘That’s a Shame'”. This latter is not a “Hall of Shame” — like they are super-villians or criminals — but rather a “Hall of Disappointment”, people for whom there was great promise and hopeful expectations, but who chose poorly from a spiritual perspective in the latter portion of life. Sometimes the poor choices happened in the throes of mid-life crisis, sometimes in uncritical pursuit of higher education, sometimes in fear of alienating an important relationship, sometimes for the sake of popularity, sometimes just because the “road in the wilderness” wore them down, sometimes because they lacked spiritual depth when they encountered a strong tempation. King Saul was one of them.

Saul began humbly and well. But then with his lapse of faith against the Philistines and his disobedience regarding the Amalekites the wheels just sort of fell off the wagon and he descended into jealousy, paranoia, hatred, and (in today’s reading) the occult. His story doesn’t end heroically. Will yours? Will you be faithful until the end? Will you stand for what’s right all your life? Will life’s temptations wear you down? Will you finish strong, or will you just finish? Will you be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith,” (2 Timothy 4:7, NAS95)?

There interesting things to be seen in this story of Saul and the witch of Endor. First notice that Saul actually had been good about somethings in his reign — all the known occultists had been run out. But when God wasn’t answering an anxious Saul, he erroneously turned to seek answers from the dead — forbidden in Deut. 18. When the witch is fooled into trying call up Samuel from the dead, an interesting thing happens — she actually succeeds! She’s surprised and cries out — which tells us something about her usual real success. Like other mediums and necromancers, she had apparently just pretended to be able, and when she succeeds, she’s surprised.

Calling up the dead is also seen to be futile in this passage, since Samuel doesn’t know what’s going on the world of the living — Saul has to tell him why he called him up. This is in accord with other teachings of Scripture, which tells us that the dead, though they are conscious, are not aware of what is transpiring in the world of the living. So consulting with them is useless. In this case, however, Samuel continues to have prophetic powers and tells Saul that tomorrow Saul and his sons would be joining Samuel in Sheol. And by the way, how is Saul now profited from this illicit knowledge that he has obtained? People are ever looking for glimpses into the future, but they will always be disappointed, unless it is a glimpse that God Himself has allowed (e.g., Revelation).

At the same time, David has been invited by king Achish to join the Philistine armies now gathering against the Israelite army. It looks like David would have to either fight against his own people or reveal himself to Achish in battle by turning against him — and thus losing Ziklag as a “home”. But at the last minute the Philistine lords demanded that David go home, lest he be tempted to turn on them at some crucial moment. But when David returned, he discovered that the Amalekites had raided, while David was away at the battle line. No one, it appeared had been killed, but everyone and everything of value was missing. Although David and his men are weary from the 3 day march back from Mt. Gilboa to Ziklag, they immediately set off in pursuit of the raiders. After a short while, 200 of David’s men cannot go on and David decides to strip off excess baggage and leave the weary behind. When the rest of his outlaw band encounter a jettisoned Egyptian slave, who will show them where the Amalekites are, David and his men catch them by surprise, rout them, and recover everyone and everything, including significantly more plunder than they had lost. When they returned, the 200 who stayed with the baggage were scorned by the others who had fought; but David stopped the argument immediately and declared a new policy about those who stayed with baggage — they would always receive an equal share of the plunder.

It has an application among NT people, too. Every talent is necessary. A husband who goes to work everyday, while his wife stays home to work at home, take care of the children, etc. (although this doesn’t happen as often as it did a generation ago) needs to recognize the value of his wife’s contribution to the family. Paul has much to say about this within a congregational context in 1 Cor 12, doesn’t he? Those who stay with the baggage — how ever that may be defined in your situation — are just as important to the victory as those whose contribution was more public or high-profile. Possibly if more men had realize that, vocalized that, appreciated that, there might be fewer latch-key kids, more stay-at-home moms (we’re find out more and more about how important this is to healthy families).

Of course, Saul and (sadly) his son Jonathan (and Saul’s other sons) were killed on Mt. Gilboa. When the Philistines were looting the dead, they recognized Saul and brought his body to Beth Shean (a Philistine city set kind of in the middle of the land of Ephraim) to affix it to the city walls — a rather grotesque practice to modern sensibilities, but an often practiced victory declaration in the ancient world. Even Israel had practiced similar things, although God had specified that no body should be hung on a tree (the most common way of doing this) for more than a day (Deut 21:22,23) — to the vanquished it was a great shame and insult. But some good deeds don’t get forgotten, and some valiant men from Jabesh-Gilead, the first city that Saul had rescued from the hand of the Ammonites, came secretly at night, stole the body off the wall, transported it to Jabesh-Gilead, and gave Saul’s body an honorable burial. All of Israel should have fighting over the honor. David honored the men of Jabesh-Gilead for their heroism (2 Sam. 2:5). Later still (2 Sam. 12) David has Saul’s body reburied in his father’s tomb. Saul may not have been everything that Israel had hoped that he’d be, but he was the “Lord’s anointed” and he deserved to be honored for all that he had done for God’s people. Honor to whom honor is due. Who do you need to honor?

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

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About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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