When I was in the seventh grade, my family moved from a large town to a small village with only 2,000 people. In that town just about everyone I knew had grown up together and attended the same school since kindergarten. Since our town didn't have its own high school, after the kids attended school in our district from kindergarten through the eighth grade, they transferred to a neighboring school district and our town would pay the tuition.
As a seventh grader, at the age of 13, I was a newcomer at this small-town school. It's difficult to be the new kid at school, but I had some excellent teachers who were caring and helpful. One of them was Mr. G., my language arts teacher. He not only encouraged me to write and read, he also believed in me. He made a difference for good in my life.
Although I attended that school for less than two years, it was a sad day when I graduated from eighth grade and left it all behind. For the next two years I attended a high school in a neighboring town, until four towns, including my small town, established a new regional high school. Amazingly, the principal of that school hired Mr. G. and he became my English teacher. Once again, we were together: I was the class president, and he became my friend and faculty advisor.
After I had graduated from high school and came home for Christmas, I went with one of my West Essex High School friends to visit Mr. G. We wanted to reconnect with him and be encouraged by him. Years later, Charlene and I sent him a wedding invitation, and he gave us an expensive, silver gift that we still have and value.
Mr. G. was my mentor, my teacher, and my friend. But this story doesn't end well. He became the faculty advisor of other classes, helping them with typical faculty advisor activities—raising money, editing the yearbook, and planning the Junior-Senior Prom. But then one day I heard the news: Mr. G. had embezzled money from the school and the student treasury. He was fired from his job and excluded from ever teaching in this state again.
Maybe you've had someone that you've admired, and they left you disappointed and betrayed. It may have been a teacher who abused authority a pastor that preached morality but behaved immorally, a trusted financial advisor who ripped you off, a parent who shattered your trust, or a politician you helped to elect who became corrupt.
How do you react to all of this? What do you do with it? Some of us become cynics: the hurt becomes a wound that never heals. Others decide never to trust any leader or authority figure—teachers, pastors, financial advisors, or politicians. If you've never experienced this kind of betrayal, that's good news. Unfortunately, the odds are that you have, or that someday you will.
Discovering a king-hero-mentor
The biography of Israel's King David is recorded in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel. These two books are named after the great prophet of the time, whose own biography is woven into the beginning of the story. After Samuel's death, the story then follows the biography of David, Israel's great leader. Although the last chapter in 1 Samuel doesn't mention David, this passage records one of the most significant days in his life.
For years the people of Israel had been plagued by assaults by their neighbor, the nation of Philistia, so the people of Israel petitioned God through their prophet and leader Samuel. They asked God not only to deliver them from the Philistines, but to do it through a king. They wanted to be like the other nations who had a king who would organize them and defend them against foreign assault. God was offended by their request, because he already was their king—their defender and protector. But even though it grieved him, God answered their prayers as they had requested.
God commissioned Samuel, his prophet, to search the nation and find the very best man to become the king of Israel. After searching through the twelve tribes of the nation, Samuel narrowed it down to one tribe (Benjamin) and one family within that tribe (the family of Kish). Samuel then narrowed it down to one young man in that family (Saul). Saul was perfect for the job of Israel's king. He was smart and articulate, tall and handsome, godly and humble—and he didn't seek the office. In fact, on his coronation day, he hid because he was so overwhelmed by the task before him. The Spirit of God filled King Saul and empowered him, giving him wisdom and skill to lead the nation of God's people. It was a marvelous beginning. He was a brave soldier and a competent leader in the most difficult of times. As a result, the nation loved and admired King Saul.
David would never forget the day when he first saw the king. He had been sent by his father to take supplies to his older brothers who were in the army of Israel, camped out on the eve of a great battle against that neighbor nation of Philistia. When David arrived, a giant named Goliath was shouting profanities against Israel's God. David was stunned that no one would step up to take on the champion with the power of God. So, he volunteered. When he did, his brothers burst into laughter and mocked him. Barely a young man, how could David challenge a gigantic, veteran soldier? It seemed silly to them.
King Saul, however, believed in David. He had confidence that David could actually become a champion for God's nation of Israel. From that day on, Saul became David's mentor and sponsor. He invited David into the royal court. He hired him among his chief musicians. Saul commissioned David as a high officer in Israel's army with the job of writing poetry and songs. David and Saul spent countless hours together. Saul even gave his daughter in marriage to David. Theirs was the closest of relationships.
In return David grew fiercely loyal to King Saul, a man he loved and admired. David believed in him as well. He became Saul's son-in-law and the best friend of the king's son, Jonathan.
The hero meets tragedy
It wasn't long, though, before Saul started behaving badly. He made terrible judgments, spiraling downward in his relationship with God. Still, David believed in Saul and admired him. Even after King Saul turned against David and put a price on David's head—even after Saul himself tried to murder him—David's love and loyalty for his mentor never wavered. He was still fiercely convinced that Saul was the right person, God's choice, to be the king of Israel. David would not compromise his loyalty to the king or his friendship with the king's son, Jonathan.
One day there was a dreaded, decisive battle between the armies of Israel and Philistia. The two armies swept across the valley of Jezreel. God's prophet Samuel had already predicted the battle's end: a day of terrible defeat and even slaughter for Israel. But even without Samuel's forecast, most people could have predicted the outcome. The army of Philistia was larger and stronger and had an enormous strategic advantage, with ranks of chariots that Israel could not match.
As the army of Israel was being slaughtered, they ran to the slopes of Mount Gilboa. In the midst of their retreat, they tried to find higher ground where the Philistine chariots couldn't operate, enabling Israel's army to get a foothold and fight back. But the Philistines were relentless—and ruthless. They targeted the king and his family, figuring they could take down the command of the Israelite army and eliminate Israel's royal family. They succeeded. On that day, on the slopes of Mount Gilboa, the king's three sons were slaughtered, and King Saul himself was mortally wounded.
Jonathan and David were best friends. They serve as a model for friendship between two men. As many of us know, it's an awful day when your best friend dies—when you lose someone who understood you and whom you understood. For David, this was one of life's truly awful days.
When someone you love dies, and you're not present, there's a natural curiosity about the details: the exact time, the last words spoken, the medical help offered. We wish we could have been there so we ask for all the details. The details of the death of Saul and his sons are found in 1 Samuel 31: "Then Saul told his armor bearer, 'Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.'" In verses 5-6, we read: "But his armor bearer was terrified and would not do it. So Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor bearer and all his men died together that same day." It's a sad and gruesome scene. It makes me want to look the other way—to let my mind drift away from the biblical page, because it contains more information than we need to know.
Suicide is tragic—regardless of the circumstances—and it breaks our hearts when someone feels desperate enough to take their own life. Although the suicides of Saul and his armor bearer were linked, and although they happened on the same day and in the same place, they were actually quite different.
Saul knew the Philistines well. He knew that they were capable of unspeakable atrocities, and he didn't want to fall into their hands. Mortally wounded, Saul decided it was better to die sooner, rather than later. In order to maintain his dignity in death, Saul would have to die before the Philistine soldiers arrived and did what he feared they would do. He decided to end his own life, and he asked his armor bearer for help. But his ever-loyal armor bearer wouldn't do it. He couldn't bring himself to take the life of the king. When King Saul finally took his own life, the armor bearer decided to do the same. Like Saul, he fell on his sword.
But the armor bearer's situation was very different. He wasn't wounded, and he wasn't dying. He was just desperate. In the horror of the moment, he couldn't think of an alternative. He couldn't see any good thing that could happen in the future.
I wish I could reach back through history, tap the armor bearer on the shoulder and say, "Wait a minute! There's hope! You don't have to do this!" I sometimes try to imagine an alternate ending to this story when I read it. If he hadn't ended his life, the Philistines probably would have captured and tortured him, or taken him as a prisoner of war. But then again, perhaps there would've been an exchange of prisoners. Maybe he would have escaped. Maybe he could have lived to see Israel's better days (and it wasn't long before Israel overcame the Philistines). He could have had a life! It could have gone on! But he was caught up in the desperation of that moment.
The tragedy gets even worse
For the people of Israel, and especially for David, the grief was compounded by what happened next, recorded in verses 7-10:
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. The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.
The Israelites fled in terror, leaving behind their homes, farms, and livestock. Rushing away with only the clothes on their backs, they ran as far and as fast as they could.
Can you imagine what that was like? We quickly forget that there are millions of people around the world, right now, who have been forced to flee their homes because of the terrors of war or genocide. It's almost impossible for us to imagine a foreign army invading our land, chasing us away from everything we cherish and stealing everything we own. But that's exactly what happened in this story: the people of Israel became homeless refugees.
The Philistines, meanwhile, gloated in their victory. Saul's worst nightmares about Philistine atrocities had come true. After decapitating the dead king, they stripped off his armor, and stuck his body to the wall of Beth Shan, an allegedly impregnable fortress at the connection between the Valley of Jordan and the Valley of Jezreel. Because it was on a commercial route, everyone who passed by would see Saul's body. Today it would be like hanging your enemy's dead body on a billboard or a capitol building. It was the most public of humiliations. Then they took Saul's armor, and they set it up in the temple of their goddess. They were sending a clear message: the goddess of Philistia was greater and stronger than Yahweh, the God of Israel. It was a dark and awful day.
Can you feel David's agony in the midst of this tragedy? He must have been thinking, I should have been there! That's often the thought of those who couldn't be there for a loved one who was desperate and dying. David must have thought, If I had been there, I would have fought off those Philistines. If I had been there with my 600 men, this wouldn't have happened. If only I had been there—then my king would have survived all of this and escaped this humiliation. For David it was this awful day—the pain of humiliation stacked on top of grief.
Remembering the people of Jabesh
It's hard to imagine any kind of good ending coming from this terrible tale, but that is exactly what the Bible records. It's found in a quick report at the end of 1 Samuel, a report that most readers would quickly read and soon forget. I guess that many people could read the story and, if asked 24 hours later to repeat the details, would barely recall what they had read. But I remember it, and I remember it well.
When I was a little boy, I often saw my mother reading the Bible. I think it's safe to say that she was a prolific Bible reader. She would often insert Bible quotes into everyday conversations, making allusions that, I assure you, were about some of the most obscure things found in the Bible. Honestly, about 98 percent of the time I had no idea what she was talking about. Growing up I soon learned to smile, pretend to understand, and let it go. As I was sitting at the kitchen table or heading off to school, she would use Hebrew names, including a nickname which she gave to me from her Bible reading. It is a nickname that only my mother has ever called me, and I would like to keep that record intact. Please don't ever, ever call me by this name, because I want it to be the name that only my mom called me. When I was a little boy, she would call me "Jabesh." She had read it in the last paragraph of the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel:
When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men journeyed 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.
Jabesh Gilead was a border town far removed from most of the towns and the populations of Israel. But years before this, Jabesh Gilead had been under siege by the Philistines, and early in the reign of King Saul, he had marched the distance and saved the town. He had rescued them from this Philistine assault, and they never forgot.
The Bible says that the men of Jabesh were valiant. They did something that some people would criticize and consider foolhardy. Against formidable odds, they attacked a fortress that was considered to be impregnable, and they retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons. After bringing them back to Jabesh, they buried the bodies with the greatest honor they could find under the circumstances. Then they fasted and mourned for seven days over the death of their leader. In other words, the men of Jabesh did what was right even though it was very dangerous; even though some people would have complained, "These men are already dead. Why bother? Why do this now?" But it was the right thing to do; it was the right way to honor the very best of a fallen leader and his sons. Although I didn't appreciate or understand being called the nickname my mother gave me, I have concluded that it is an honor to be called Jabesh.
Honoring our Fallen Heroes
How should we respond to those to whom we have given our love and our loyalty only to have them fail us? How should we treat those who have betrayed us? The valiant men of Jabesh provide a great precedent that was later followed by King David himself. The men of Jabesh chose to remember the best and give honor to a man whom others would say didn't deserve it.
Perhaps you'll remember the line spoken by Marc Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. As Marc Antony was giving his eulogy after Caesar's assassination, he said, "The evil that men do lives after them, but the good is oft interred with their bones." In essence the men of Jabesh said, "That will not be the case with King Saul; we will not forget the good that he has done." Yes, Saul had failed. Yes, Saul had done things a king should never do. But they chose to remember his heroism; they remembered when he had been filled with the Spirit of God; and they celebrated and honored him.
When our heroes fall, let us grieve their loss. When our mentors sin, of course we should disclaim the evil. But let's also remember the good they did is no less good, the truth they spoke is no less true, and the love they gave is no less love. To remember well and honor fallen heroes does not condone what they have done. It simply honors and celebrates what was good in their lives. Perhaps we, too, may be called "Jabesh."
I know that God is calling us to be grateful for our invitation to sit at the king's table. Think about God and his grace to us. He not only withheld from us the punishment that's deserved—that's mercy. But then he bestowed and lavished upon us all kinds of spiritual blessings.
I know what you're thinking. What are those blessings again? Because I don't feel real blessed this morning. That's normal. We forget sometimes. We forget that sitting at the king's table means we'll never, ever have to pay the price for the weakness, the vulnerability, the sin, the deception, the anger, the lust, the jealousy, the competition. These are all the things that define us in our efforts to make sense of the world, but God says: I'm going to cover that with the righteousness of Christ for everyone who is willing to come to the king's table.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.