How Did King Saul Die?

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In 1 Samuel 31:1–6,1 we read an account of the defeat of Israel in battle at the hands of the Philistines, as well as the death of King Saul and three of his sons. However in 2 Samuel 1:4–10 (the very next chapter in English Bibles2) we are given a slightly different account of the death of Saul. So how did King Saul die? By his own hand, or by the hand of an Amalekite who came upon Saul in mortal agony?

Did the Amalekite Lie?

The majority of commentators through the years have looked upon the account of the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1 as being a lie told in the opportunistic hopes of gaining a reward from King David. After all, once you read both accounts, you are left with only a few possibilities, either the Amalekite was lying, or, if he was telling the truth, then the author of 1 Samuel 31 either got the details completely wrong or didn’t have all the details, and so wrote only what he knew. These last two positions are untenable for biblical inerrancy, though, especially since the author was inspired by the Holy Spirit at the time of writing (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). Furthermore, there are many things which make it likely that the Amalekite is lying.

  1. The Amalekite makes no mention of the armor bearer, and the 1 Samuel 31 account states that the armor bearer saw Saul die from a self-inflicted wound. The armor bearer’s job was to protect his charge, and he would have fought the Amalekite if he was living. He would certainly not have allowed him to take the crown and bracelets off of Saul’s body had he still been alive. Yet we are told in 1 Samuel 31:5 that the armor bearer (someone who no doubt had been in many battles and witnessed death many times) verified that Saul was dead before he also committed suicide.
  2. It can hardly be thought Saul would ask an uncircumcised foreigner to kill him; since he might as well have died by the hands of the uncircumcised Philistines, which he endeavored to avoid (1 Samuel 31:4). Therefore it is inconceivable for Saul to want death by the hands of an Amalekite (especially since Saul’s prophesied loss of the throne and his death was predicted exactly because he didn’t fulfill God’s edict to wipe out the Amalekites: 1 Samuel 15:17–26, 28:17–19).
  3. The 1 Samuel 31 account records Saul’s words to his armor bearer; the 2 Samuel 1 account reveals the Amalekite telling David of Saul’s words and they do not align. So we have to decide whether it is more consistent for Saul to ask his fellow-Israelite armor bearer to kill him or to ask an Amalekite to do so. If we view the Amalekite story as being an addendum to the 1 Samuel 31 account and having any germ of truth, then Saul had already been hit by several arrows, had fallen on his sword, convinced his armor bearer he was dead, and then revived, stood up and leaned on his spear, and was still not dead yet!
  4. The Amalekite states that Saul was leaning on a spear, yet the 1 Samuel account records Saul falling on his sword. So was Saul strong enough after falling on his sword to stand up, lean on a spear and talk to the Amalekite, or was the Amalekite “sure that he [Saul] could not live after he had fallen” as he claimed to David seconds later?
  5. The Amalekite never mentions that Saul had been pierced with arrows, another thing that seems strange (1 Samuel 31:3). If the Amalekite wanted to play down his part in Saul’s death and play up that Saul was in mortal agony with no hope of living (2 Samuel 1:10), then why no mention of Saul’s self-inflicted sword thrust and several Philistine arrow wounds?
  6. The Amalekite mentions that the chariots of the Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul, how would he then have time to talk to Saul, kill him, steal his crown, and take a bracelet off of his arm—and still get away, outrunning chariots? We read later (1 Samuel 31:8–10) what the Philistines did to Saul’s body, and how they stripped his armor. Are we expected to believe that they would not have wanted the royal crown and a gold bracelet? The Amalekite claimed that he was behind Saul (2 Samuel 1:7), who was being hotly pursued, and thus the Amalekite by his own testimony, would have presumably been visible by both Saul and the Philistines.
  7. Additionally, how would the Amalekite have “chanced” upon Saul when Saul was being pursued by chariots? And why would the Philistines have waited until the next day to go strip Saul’s body (1 Samuel 31:8), when according to the Amalekite they were “hot on his heels”? The Amalekites were enemies of Israel and Judah (1 Samuel 30) and had also been raiding against the Philistines (1 Samuel 30:16). Consequently, he would have been killed on sight if the Philistines saw him on the battlefield. He would not have risked his life strolling along (in reality looting the dead) in daylight when he would have been considered an enemy by the Philistines at least.3

The most likely scenario was that Saul was hit by arrows late in the day, and the Philistines thinking he had fled (or fallen back behind the battle lines), were unaware he was hit and mortally wounded by arrows until they came upon his body the next morning. The Amalekite was merely an opportunist who arrived late, probably after sunset, saw Saul and his retinue dead, and hoped to ingratiate himself into David’s court, supposing that since Saul considered David an enemy, the feeling was reciprocal.

It should be noted that there are a few commentators who believe that Saul’s armor bearer mistakenly thought Saul was dead, but after the armor bearer committed suicide, Saul revived and the Amalekite stumbled upon the royal retinue. Then, acting on Saul’s wishes, he killed Saul, took his crown, and went to David and embellished the account. This is not just unlikely, given the tenor of the account in 1 Samuel 31 and the seeming certainty of the armor bearer, but in consideration of the above-mentioned “holes” in the Amalekites story, and the fact that it would call into question the accuracy of Scripture, it is demonstrably false.

Why Did David Execute the Amalekite?

So why did David have the Amalekite killed? Either he believed him and killed him for daring to slay the Lord’s anointed, or he knew he was lying and killed him for lying and looting, as well as trying to besmirch David’s name by associating him with the forced and premature transferal of power. David’s statement in 2 Samuel 1:16, “Your blood is on your own head, for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed’” does not necessarily mean that David accepted his story as fact, but only that, if it were, the Amalekite had testified against himself and absolved David of any wrongdoing in ordering his execution.

We must remember that the Bible is true, and this is the case even when recording someone who is lying.

We must remember that the Bible is true, and this is the case even when recording someone who is lying. In fact, since people quite often in Scripture told outright lies and half-truths (think of Aaron’s whopper in Exodus 32:24 compared to what actually happened in verses 3–4). Scripture must of necessity faithfully record these statements to point out their error and show forth the real truth. False prophets in the time of Jeremiah were condemned for their outright lies (Jeremiah 27:9–17, 28:15–17) and Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–9). This does not mean that Scripture condones lying because it records such examples, but rather shows these in order to expose lying.

So, Who Killed King Saul?

That brings us back to the original question. Who killed King Saul? Did he kill himself, or did an Amalekite battlefield looter kill him? Perhaps another passage can shed some light on the question. A couple of years after King Saul’s death, another similar incident occurred when two brothers, servants of Saul’s son Ishbosheth, killed him and brought his head to David. David’s response to this tends to support the “lying Amalekite” position. David told the two brothers “when someone told me, saying, ‘Look, Saul is dead,’ thinking to have brought good news, I arrested him and had him executed in Ziklag—the one who thought I would give him a reward for his news. How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous person in his own house on his bed? Therefore, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and remove you from the earth?” (2 Samuel 4:10–11).

David’s statement seems to imply that he really thought the Amalekite was lying for potential gain, and, unlike the case at hand, was not responsible for murder, but for lying, looting, and implicating David in the death of Saul by taking Saul’s crown to him. Since 1 Samuel 31:4–6 claims that the armor bearer saw Saul die and then killed himself, and that Saul and his three sons all died on the same day, it appears certain that the Amalekite was lying, and that Saul died by his own hand. Keeping in mind that a day in ancient Israel ran from sundown to sundown, this makes the case even more telling that the Amalekite was lying, assuming he arrived after sundown.

As mentioned above, the Amalekite was either a “timely” opportunist or an experienced battlefield looter and almost certainly did his skulking about at dusk and at night. Saul’s sons had died a little earlier in battle, and therefore Saul (and his armor bearer who died after Saul) must have also died at or shortly before sundown. Since the Philistines were unable or unwilling to loot and desecrate the bodies of Saul and his sons right away (which was clearly their intention), it must have been late in the day when all of them died, or resistance from the remaining Israelite soldiers before they fled (1 Samuel 31:1) was strong enough to keep the Philistines from looting the dead until after sundown, which caused them to wait until the next morning.

“Lying Lips”

There are not contradictory accounts of Saul’s death in Scripture. The account in 1 Samuel 31 is the true account of the events as they unfolded, and the account in 2 Samuel 1 is also a true account—but an account of a man lying to David, hoping for a reward. There is no contradiction here, Saul committed suicide after being mortally wounded in battle, and the Amalekite thought to take advantage of the opportunity for personal gain, only to have his plan backfire on him.

As you read through the Psalms, a couple verses stand out as potential remembrances of David of this episode in his life:

Let the lying lips be put to silence,
Which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous. (Psalm 31:18)
Rescue me and deliver me from the hand of foreigners,
Whose mouth speaks lying words,
And whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood. (Psalm 144:11)

Lastly, perhaps David’s son Solomon (who might have been told of this event by his father) had this account of the Amalekite in mind when he wrote what is an extremely appropriate proverb to this situation—“A fool’s mouth is his destruction, And his lips are the snare of his soul” (Proverbs 18:7).

Footnotes

  1. All Scripture references are from the New King James Version (NKJV).
  2. In the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) 1st and 2nd Samuel were originally one book (see “Tanakh,” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tanakh).
  3. Again here we see a discrepancy in the Amalekite’s account. In 2 Samuel 1:8 while narrating to David, he mentions that he identifies himself to Saul as an Amalekite, but in verse 13 tells David he is the “son of an alien [foreigner], an Amalekite”. The NET note for verse 13 says, “The Hebrew word used here refers to a foreigner whose social standing was something less than that of native residents of the land, but something more than that of a nonresident alien who was merely passing through” (NET Bible, http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=2Sa&chapter=1, footnote 21). It is probable that this Amalekite was lying to David and would have been considered an enemy, but if his claim to David was correct, then he might have been an alien resident in Israel, and so would not have been viewed as an enemy (per Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:33). But even if the latter case is correct, it would not have exempted him from capital punishment for self-confessed murder.

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