During the time covered in 1 Samuel 18-29, David built up a small army of 600 men from the outcasts of Israel, while Saul continued to hunt David down in order to kill him. When we finally get to chapters 30-31, David and Saul are both facing armed conflicts, but with separate enemies. The narrator places these conflicts one after another to contrast how different Saul and David, with respect to their relationships with God, truly are.
Chapter 30 opens with David and his army returning to their home base at the village of Ziklag (they had been away for some time). When they arrive, they discover that Israel’s ancient enemies, the Amalekites, have burnt down the village and taken everyone prisoner, including all of the wives and children of David’s army. David and his men are devastated at their loss, to the point that the men blame David and contemplate killing him for what has happened.
David, however, seeks God’s wisdom and asks the priest Abiathar to bring him the priestly ephod. He asks God whether he should pursue the Amalekites and God responds that he should. Note that David seeks God’s decision in the matter as prescribed by the Torah. David is consistently shown as obeying the commands of the Torah in contrast to Saul who seems to know nothing of the Torah.
David and 400 of his men pursue the Amalekites, without knowing exactly where they have gone. However, David happens across an Egyptian servant who was left behind by his Amalekite master because he was ill. He agrees to take David to the Amalekite camp if David will spare his life. The reader is meant to understand that finding the Egyptian is no accident. This is the hand of God ensuring David’s success in his mission.
David’s army finds the Amalekite camp where all the soldiers are intoxicated, celebrating their recent ill-gotten gains. His forces engage the Amalekites, who greatly outnumber him, and win decisively, with only 400 Amalekites escaping when the battle is over. Not only that, but all the women and children taken from Ziklag are rescued, along with all the possessions stolen by the Amalekites during their recent marauding campaign.
In stark contrast to David’s successful campaign, chapter 31 reveals the disaster that is Saul’s battle against the Philistines. Before we see what happens in chapter 31, let’s review chapter 28 briefly. Since Saul has no access to God (Samuel has died and God had rejected Saul’s reign as king years earlier), Saul instead seeks the guidance of a sorceress/medium, an activity which is clearly forbidden by the Torah. The medium summons the deceased Samuel who reminds Saul that God has rejected him and given the kingdom to David. She then ominously warns Saul that the Philistines will kill Saul and his sons the next day.
As we return to chapter 31, we learn that the Philistines have overtaken the Israelite army and pressed hard after Saul and his sons. Three of Saul’s sons are killed in battle, including Jonathan. Dale Ralph Davis, in 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, Focus on the Bible Commentary, writes:
Here then is Jonathan’s obituary. He remained a true friend to David and a faithful son of Saul. He surrendered his kingship to David (18:1–4); he sacrificed his life for Saul. In this hopeless fiasco Jonathan was nowhere else but in the place Yahweh had assigned to him—at the side of his father.
Saul is wounded by archers and asks his armor-bearer to kill him so that the Philistines will not have the opportunity to torture him. The armor-bearer refuses to kill him, so Saul commits suicide with his own sword. The armor-bearer then takes his own life. The results of this military defeat are disastrous for Israel. Several Israelite settlements near the Philistines are abandoned in haste because the army and their king has been defeated.
As if this isn’t bad enough, the Philistines remove the valuables from the bodies of Saul and his sons and then fasten their corpses on the wall of a city called Beth Shan. They also spread the word around their cities that Israel has been defeated. This defeat is profound. Here is how Dale Ralph Davis describes it:
Yahweh has been defeated. Saul’s armor is in the adversary’s temple; Yahweh could not protect his king. No question about how the media would construe it. If Yahweh’s king and people were trounced, so was their God. . . . The sadness of our text is due not merely to the fact that Israel is crushed. That is sad. But there is a deeper sadness in that Yahweh is mocked. Every true Israelite mourns over that. Worse than Israel’s defeat is Yahweh’s disgrace.
A daring nighttime mission by the Israelite soldiers of Jabesh Gilead reclaims the bodies of Saul and his sons, and they are cremated, except for their bones, which are buried.
How can we summarize the end of 1 Samuel? Robert Bergen, in 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, writes:
On the one hand, David was here fulfilling the mandate of the Torah regarding the Amalekites and receiving the resulting blessing of a restored family and the increase of possessions. On the other hand, at the very moment David was enjoying success and blessing, Saul was experiencing the full force of a Torah curse, including the loss of his family and possessions.
Both David and Saul were fighting traditional enemies of Israel in the events recorded in this section, and both men sought divine guidance in their respective undertakings. To the south, David consulted the only form of revelation sanctioned by the Torah before going forth to slaughter the Amalekites, who had temporarily dispossessed David and his men of their families and worldly goods during a lightning raid on Ziklag. To the north Saul sought insight from a medium, a revelatory means expressly forbidden by the Torah, before waging war against the Philistines. As a result of Saul’s sinful actions, the Lord used the Philistines as agents of divine judgment to bring down on Saul’s head the just punishment for his rejection of the Torah (cf. 1 Chr 10:13–14). When this pivotal series of events concludes, Saul and all his credible heirs to the throne are dead; David, on the other hand, is poised to become Israel’s king and to establish a dynasty as all of his heirs are restored to him.