1 Samuel 28-31: Saul’s Last Battle

Original Publication Date
December 31, 2016
Feb 18, 2023 3:21 PM
1 SamuelChapter StudyAmalakitesPhilistineDavidWitchcraftSaul
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1 Samuel 28-31
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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on December 31, 2016 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.


Once again, the Philistines gather against Israel. This time, Saul has neither Samuel (who is now dead) nor David (who is in exile) to be his strength in the battle. Without these two faithful men present in his life, Saul turns to "a woman that hath a familiar spirit"—a person he was forbidden from dealing with by God (Leviticus 19:31). The woman would have been a sorcerer or medium and the "familiar spirit" would be how she communicated with the dead. Since God forbids these activities, we know it is the devil who rules these people.[3]


Breaking God's Law

The woman is initially wary of fulfilling Saul's request; wizardry, witchcraft, etc. were all against God's law, and thus also against the laws of Israel. As king, Saul was to uphold God's law so the woman likely thought he was setting her up. Saul, however, had drifted so far away from God that he believed breaking God's law would bring him closer to God. Saul needed comfort and reassurance, but he no longer had a relationship with God. When Saul prayed, God didn't answer. This drove him to such desperation that he swore an oath to God not to punish someone for breaking the law of God. This is the exact point I was trying to make in my response on a pastor teaching his congregation to be "clean and empty;" when you aren’t full with God's Spirit, you run the risk of filling yourself with something that isn't good for you.

Relating to Today

This is an important part of Saul's story because it gives us a framework to remember about our own lives. Saul put himself in a situation many of us have been in or will be in at some point in our lives. We have a tendency to put God on the back burner, and then when life gets tough, we want Him to be at our beck and call. No where in the passage do we see Saul repent of the wrong he's done or make amends for all the time he's spent away from God's presence. Saul jumps straight into worrying about the battle and asking for God's help. Similarly, we often will go days, weeks, maybe even months without thinking about God, until something happens and we are forced to pray for His help.

When God doesn't immediately answer, Saul impatiently jumps to the next thing. How often do we do that? When we don't hear from God or can't understand His voice, we often try to take matters into our own hands, which is never a good idea. I say "can't understand His voice" because I think most of the time, it isn't that God isn't answering so much as the fact that we either aren't listening or have forgotten His voice. There are many verses that state God will never leave or forsake us (i.e. Deuteronomy 31:8, Hebrews 13:5), but that doesn't mean we won't feel forgotten. We are told the Spirit of God leaves both Samson and Saul at some point during their lives. In Samson's case, when he repents, God returns, giving him the strength to carry out the mission. The key there is the repentance. Saul does not repent, so God does not return to save the day for Saul.

We should remember this. When we feel we have lost the presence of God, we should reflect on our behavior, on our relationship with God prior to our current situation. Along with repenting, we must exercise patience and faith that God will return to show us the way. It is this patience that will keep us on the right path.

Did Saul Actually Speak to the Dead?

As we know, Saul didn't repent. Instead, he convinces a sorcerer to contact the spirit of Samuel. Remember Leviticus 19:31 and Deuteronomy 18:11-14? God told the Israelites not to try to communicate with the dead. Saul clearly didn't remember this, or he deliberately chose to disobey God.

When a man appears, Saul infers him to be Samuel and begins a conversation. It's important to remember that 1 Samuel 28:14 says "Saul perceived that it was Samuel," which means it may not have been Samuel. If it was Samuel, I would think the text would have said something along the lines of "Saul saw Samuel..." As it is written, it could just as well mean that Saul only thought this person was Samuel.

However, the words of Samuel are what lead me to believe Saul spoke with the real Samuel. Samuel tells Saul that he will lose the battle, his sons will die in battle, and the kingdom will pass to David. All three of these prophecies come true, just as Samuel predicted. In the New Testament, one of the ways to discern a prophet of God from a false prophet is whether their prophecies come true or not (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Since we know the real Samuel was a real prophet, it follows that the real Samuel would give a true prophecy, but a demon posing as Samuel may not. That being said, although the devil isn't all knowing like God, he does know some things. Since his game is deceiving people, it seems unlikely the devil would give the full story in a prophecy, however he may have been using Saul as a pawn. When Saul's soldiers saw that he consulted a medium (ungodly), spoke to the dead (ungodly), and received a valid prophecy, they may have followed in his footsteps.

Back in 2016 I leaned toward Saul actually seeing Samuel. After studying what the Bible says about the state of the dead (e.g. Ecclesiastes 9:5) and putting that in to context with the fact that YHWH consistently tells us not to talk to the dead, I no longer lean this way. I believe it was a demonic spirit who happened to be right (after all, now that YHWH had left Saul it was inevitable that he would fall).

Saul's Defeat

As predicted, Saul does not fare well in battle. 1 Samuel 31 recounts the death of Saul and his sons. Saul is initially only wounded by an arrow, but the wound must have been too great for him to continue in battle. Knowing that he would be tortured when captured, Saul requests his armor bearer finish the job before the Philistines capture him. When the armor bearer refuses, Saul kills himself by falling on his sword. The armor bearer commits suicide after discovering Saul has killed himself, and three of Saul's sons die in this battle. Although Saul escaped torture, his body was desecrated when the Philistines found it on the battlefield. I imagine this was a great day of mourning for the Israelites.

The act of killing oneself to avoid torture has been a long standing tradition and found in many cultures. I find it interesting, however, that this trait has been found mainly in those who are/were against God. Jesus, our ultimate example, did not kill himself when He was taken from the garden. He didn't avoid the torture of being whipped, crowned with thorns, hung on a cross or pierced in the side. The only man of God (that comes to my mind) who "committed suicide" was Samson. Though, Samson didn't commit suicide to avoid torture; Samson killed himself in the process of killing a multitude of Philistines (more like a suicide bomber). Even so, I wouldn't count Samson among the most faithful and godly men; he got himself into bad situations by disobeying God the same way Saul did.

How we respond to adversity is definitely something to think about. It seems to me that the key difference is in the faith affirmed or denied in the action. By falling on his sword, Saul admitted that he had no faith in God delivering him in the battle. He was convinced Israel would lose, the Philistines would capture his body, and he would live long enough to be tortured, which means the wound couldn't have been that bad. This lack of faith is perfectly juxtaposed with David's valiant faith as these last few chapters parallel the two battles. David's army is tired and worn out, but David doesn't put off the battle, nor does he give up. Instead they trusted God to lead them to victory and came out unscathed.


1 Samuel 29 switches to the Philistine side of the battle, primary because that is where David is. While Saul is cowering and consulting sorcerers to prepare for the battle, David and his men are following the Philistines into battle. David and his men were located in the rear of the main army, with Achish, the king of the Philistines. Naturally, this made the Philistines nervous. The princes complained, suggesting that David would turn on them in battle. With David and his men located at the rear, he could easily trap the Philistine army by cutting off their retreat should he decide to fight for Israel instead. Achish has great faith in David that he wouldn't betray them, but eventually, David is dismissed back to Ziklag.

Would He Betray Them?

I often wonder if David would have betrayed them. “Samuel” told Saul that he would lose the battle, and it is assumed that it was God's Will for Saul to lose and die in that moment. Thus it stands to reason that God did not intend on David fighting for Israel that day. If David had fought and switched sides mid-battle as the Philistines feared, surely Israel would have won. However, if David had fought for the Philistines, why would Israel accept him as king? Would that not be fighting against God? It seems unlikely, to me, that David was ever inclined to fight his own people. Achish's faith in David was based on a misunderstanding which convinced Achish that David had already attacked his own people, but David had done no such thing.


We get a better glimpse of David's mindset when he returns to Ziklag three days later in 1 Samuel 30. While they were gone, the city had been invaded by the Amalekites. The Amalekites burned the city and took the women captive. This included the wives of David, as well as, the wives of the soldiers. The people were so angry, they threatened to stone David!

Unlike Saul, David knew he could not fix the situation by himself. He calls upon Abithar, a priest, so that he may consult God for direction. Abithar brings David the ephod, and then David asks God what he should do. Its interesting that the ephod is mentioned just before David prays to God, and God answers David. It almost seems that David used the ephod to contact God. I find this interesting, only because I've heard theories from ancient alien theorists that many of God's holy items were actually high tech communication devices to "alien" space ships.

While I don't necessary share the same ideas or beliefs as these theorists, God (along with the angels) are not earthlings which technically makes them aliens... I'm not sure whether the ephod served as a "telephone" to God, or if it was just a symbol. Back in Leviticus, the ephod was described as an article of clothing, however as the Bible continues, scholars agree the word "ephod" seems to take on a different meaning.[1][2]

David's Victory

God was marching with David, so even though his men were tired (they had just walked three days from the location of the Philistine battle to their "home" in Ziklag) and distraught (over the situation in Ziklag), David still defeated his enemies. When David and his men set out behind the Amalekites, they happened upon an Egyptian servant from the Amalekite army who had been left to die. Not only does this man confess that he was there when they burned Ziklag, but he agrees to take David and his men to the army, provided they do not harm him. This man took a leap of faith on David. An ungodly man would have killed the servant once they had the information they needed, but David promised neither to kill nor hand over the servant.

In remaining true to God, both in his heart and in his actions, David ensured he would win. He was able to recover all of the stolen goods along with all of the people who had been kidnapped without losing any soldiers in the process. How often do people win battles without losing something? I guarantee it only happens when God is present. Further confirming his allegiance to God and Israel, David sends the spoils of his victory to the elders of Judah (1 Samuel 30:26).

References and Footnotes

  1. Emil G. Hirsch, Immanuel Benzinger, Solomon Schechter, and Louis Ginzberg. "Ephod". Jewish Encyclopedia. 2016
  2. "What was the significance of the ephod?". GotQuestions.org. 2016
  3. "What are familiar spirits?". GotQuestions.org. 2016

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