When my kids were in primary school, sometimes their homework involved writing a story. Except they’re not called stories like in MY day. They’re called NARRATIVES. And I learned that every narrative has THREE PARTS. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel, a short story, a movie, or even a joke. They all have an ORIENTATION. A COMPLICATION. And a RESOLUTION.
The ORIENTATION tells the reader what the story’s ABOUT. Details of who, when, what and where. The COMPLICATION creates some sort of tension. A problem to be solved. A difficulty to be overcome. If there’s no complication, it’s not a narrative, it’s a description. “I did this, and then I did this, and then I did this.” Boring! And the THIRD part of a narrative is the bit we’re interested in this morning. The RESOLUTION. It’s not just an ENDING. It’s a SOLUTION. An ANSWER.
And we all LOVE a good resolution. When there’s JUSTICE against the guilty. Or the guy gets the girl. Or the hero finds the treasure. Or the innocent child escapes.
In fact, we get incredibly FRUSTRATED if there’s NO resolution. Or an UNSATISFYING one. Which often happens in a TV series in the final episode of the season. Or the end of the first part of a movie trilogy. Like there’s a huge explosion and we don’t know whether the hero’s survived or not.
Like Lord of the Rings. Part ONE finishes. And the heroes are half way to Mordor, and the bad guys are still winning, and the ring hasn’t been destroyed yet. My friend Amy saw the movie, and didn’t realise it was only part one. AT the end of the movie she walked out and exploded, “What sort of an ending was THAT!?”
But, of course, that’s because it’s not REALLY the end of the narrative. It’s only ANOTHER COMPLICATION. The producers want to make sure everyone comes back to watch the show NEXT SEASON. Or to watch the SEQUEL. As the story CONTINUES. It’s like we’re MADE for RESOLUTION. We’ve got a hunger for the satisfaction of a good ending.
JRR Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings, gave a famous lecture called “On Fairy Stories.” And he talked about how the very BEST stories all finish with the good resolution. A happy ending. Where everything turns out RIGHT. In fact, he said it’s something built into human nature to SEEK that resolution. And to ENJOY it, and be SATISFIED with it. ESPECIALLY in life. But even when it’s just in a story.
And as we come to the end of 1 Samuel today, we get that same sort of feeling. We want a RESOLUTION. And we’ll see that SOME things are resolved. But others are left HANGING.
In fact, rather than just ONE cliffhanger ending, there’s FOUR of them. In these last chapters, the focus moves from David, to Saul, back to David, and finally back to Saul. And at each point, there’s a COMPLICATION, and suspense. But rather than A RESOLUTION, we change scenes to the OTHER character. It’s a series of cliffhangers!
But even when we get to THE END of the book, there’s no real resolution. And we’re left with ANOTHER cliffhanger. And it leaves us UNSATISFIED. And I think that’s just what the writer intended. But more on that later. I’ll leave you in suspense. On your OWN cliffhanger.
The beginning of chapter 27 is familiar. David’s running from Saul. It’s what half the book’s been about. So he heads back to the Philistines. He figures Saul will stop hunting for him there.
And he’s right! David and six hundred of his men and their families go to GATH. And, v4, when Saul hears, he stops searching for him.
David goes to the king of Gath, Achish, and asks for a town of his own to live in. He hides his true intentions with humility, v5, “Why should your servant live in the royal city with you?” (In other words, I’m not worthy of living in the capital with you. Just give some grubby little village).
So Achish gives him Ziklag, some distance away. And near the border of Israel.
And that’s where we see David’s plan. V8. David and his men raid the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. All of them Israel’s enemies. (Just what we’d expect a KING to do!)
But when Achish would ask, v10, where David had gone raiding, he’d say, “Against JUDAH,” or against another Israelite outpost.
And so, v12, Achish thought David had completely swapped sides. “He’ll be my servant forever.”
David’s doing it to keep Achish on side. And so the families of his men can live in safety. But he’s playing a dangerous game. Which is what we see as Ch 28 begins.
The Philistines gather to fight Israel. Again! And Achish calls in his favours. He says to David, “You must understand that you and your men will accompany me in the army.”
David’s in a difficult position. If he says NO, Achish will realise he’s not REALLY an ally. If he says YES, he’ll end up fighting his own people. So David gives the tricky answer in v2 Then you will see for yourself what your servant can do.” It COULD mean, “I’ll show you how loyal I am when I fight for you.” But WE know it probably means, “I’ll show you how I’m still loyal to ISRAEL by fighting for THEM.”
And there’s the cliffhanger. We don’t know how David is going to get out of the mess.
And the action shifts to SAUL. Ch 28 v3. The orientation tells an important piece of information. Samuel’s DEAD. V5, Saul sees the Philistine army, he’s terrified. But God’s abandoned him. So, even though he seeks God’s guidance, there’s no answer. And so, in desperation, he asks his servants to find a medium. Someone who talks to the dead.
They find one in Endor. So Saul disguises himself, and travels there at night. V11, the woman asks who she’s to bring back. “Bring up Samuel,” he said. The woman sees Samuel, and then realises it’s Saul who’s asking. “What do you see?” says Saul. V14. “An old man WEARING A ROBE is coming up.”
And Saul knows it’s really Samuel. That ROBE was what Samuel was wearing the last time Saul saw him. Back in Ch 15. Samuel rebuked him for disobeying God. And then Saul ripped his robe as he tried to leave. And Samuel says, “The LORD has torn the kingdom from you and given it to one better than you.”
And THAT chapter finished with two comments. Until the day Samuel died, he didn’t see Saul again. And the LORD was grieved that he’d made Saul king over Israel. So Saul hears of the robe, a symbol of his failure. And he fell down with his face to the ground. V15, Samuel, somewhat understandably, is a bit grumpy to be woken from his eternal rest. “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul whines about how desperate he is. And how there’s no one to guide him. “So I’ve called on YOU to tell me what to do.”
And Samuel says, “It’s a bit late for that!” V17. “The Lord has done what he predicted. He’s torn the kingdom out of your hands, and given it to David. All because you didn’t obey the LORD and carry out his wrath against the Amalekites.”
You want some guidance? Here it is! V19. “The LORD will hand you and Israel to the Philistines. And by tomorrow, you and your sons will join me in the grave.” Samuel certainly hasn’t learned any new skills in gently breaking bad news! Saul seems to have got back up during this speech. Because, v20, he falls full length on the ground again. Filled with fear, his strength gone.
The medium’s had enough of all the hysterics. She wants the guests gone. V22. “Let me give you some food, so you can be strengthened and GO ON YOUR WAY.” The servants agree, so Saul drags himself off the floor and onto the couch. And waits while the woman kills a fattened calf, prepares it, cooks it, and bakes some bread. It’s a meal fit for a king. But Saul isn’t a man who’s fit to BE a king. It’s the condemned man’s last meal. He eats, and while it’s still night, he gets up and leaves. And that’s cliffhanger number two. We know WHAT’S going to happen. We’re just waiting for the hammer to fall.
And the action returns to David. In the difficult position of having to head into battle with the Philistines, and to fight against his own people. But Ch 29 is about how Achish’s commanders aren’t comfortable with David’s soldiers bringing up the rear. They’re worried about an ambush.
We expect David would be pleased. But look at what he says in v8.
8 “But what have I done?” asked David. “What have you found against your servant from the day I came to you until now? Why can’t I go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?”
Which, to Achish, sounds like he wants to fight for HIM. But, just like David’s LAST comment, it’s got two meanings. Because all through 1 Samuel, whenever David says “My Lord the king”, he means… SAUL.
So WE can see what David’s REAL plans are. Just what the commanders are scared of. His plan is, once the battle starts, to turn and fight AGAINST Achish. So David and his troops get sent home to Ziklag.
(Into Ch 30). Here’s the COMPLICATION. They arrive back in Ziklag to find that the Amalekites have raided it. They’ve carried off all the women, and the children, and the animals.
Now, it was the AMALEKITES David had been raiding back in Ch 27. So this is probably RETALIATION.
And it’s the Amalekites SAUL SHOULD have totally destroyed. But DIDN’T. Back in Ch 15. So it seems like David might FINISH what Saul STARTED.
But that’s not the end of the comparison. V4.
So David and his men wept aloud until they HAD NO STRENGTH LEFT TO WEEP.
Which reminds us of SAUL, when he finds out the news from the spirit of Samuel. But instead of finding strength from the witch’s meal, like Saul. V6 says
6 David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. BUT DAVID FOUND STRENGTH IN THE LORD HIS GOD.
Because God’s WITH him, unlike SAUL. And then, instead of looking for guidance from a medium and a spirit, like SAUL. Look at what David does. 7 Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, 8 and David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?” “Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”
David finds his STRENGTH in God, and receives GUIDANCE from God. Unlike Saul.
So now David and his men, after three days riding, have to take off to rescue their families. They come to a particularly difficult valley crossing, and two hundred of his men are too exhausted to keep going. So they leave them behind.
A bit further along, v11, they meet ANOTHER exhausted person. An Egyptian slave left behind by the Amalekites. They feed him, and now strengthened, he leads them on to the Amalekite camp. They’re all lying around, drinking and partying. David and his men attack, and by the end of the next day had nearly wiped them out. V18 says 18 David recovered everything the Amalekites had taken, including his two wives. 19 Nothing was missing: young or old, boy or girl, plunder or anything else they had taken. David brought everything back.
We know David’s a WARRIOR. But what sort of KING will he be? V21. They arrive back at the 200 men who were too exhausted to chase. Some of the troublemakers don’t want to share the plunder they’ve taken. But David wisely says, v23,
“No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the LORD has given us. He has protected us and handed over to us the forces that came against us. 24 Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 25 David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this.
And then, when they make it back to Ziklag, he distributes MORE of the plunder to those people in Israel who’d looked after him as he’d roamed around. It’s a little picture of David, the King who GIVES. Saul was the king who TAKES. A king like the nations. Who takes the men and the women and the horses and the taxes. But it looks like David might be a DIFFERENT sort of king.
And that’s where we finish with David. In a sense, it’s ANOTHER cliffhanger. He’s been PROMISED the kingdom, but he’s not king. In fact, he’s not even in ISRAEL. It will be TWO Samuel that takes up THAT story.
But there’s still one part of the story without a resolution. In Ch 31 the action shifts back to SAUL. And while the OTHER chapters are full of interesting details. About food and geography and exhausted soldiers. Chapter 31 gives us only the barest of details.
Israel and Philistia fight. Israel flees. Saul’s sons are killed, including Jonathan. Saul’s critically wounded. He commands his armour-bearer to finish him off. He refuses. Saul falls on his sword and dies. The next day, they strip his body, cut off his head, and send messages around the country. They hang his body from the wall of Beth Shan.
V11. When the people of Jabesh Gildead hear about it, they travel to Beth Shan at night, take down the bodies of Saul and his sons, and bury their bones under a tamarisk tree in Jabesh Gilead. And they fast for seven days as a sign of mourning and respect.
So, what sort of RESOLUTION is this? In the end, it’s NOT. We’re still HUNGRY for a resolution. Rather than an ANSWER, all we know is that Saul’s NOT the answer.
I think this LAST scene affects our response to Saul. As much as he was evil and disobedient. As much as he would have killed David in a heartbeat. As much as we’ve been cheering for David. We can’t help feeling a little SORRY for Saul.
Jabesh Gilead was Saul’s first and greatest success. Back in Ch 11, they were attacked, and sent out a cry for help. When Saul heard, the Spirit of God came on him, and he burned with anger. He cut up his oxen, and sent the pieces throughout Israel with the message “This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.”
And the people united behind him. And he won a great victory. And delivered the people of Jabesh. And they hadn’t forgotten.
That’s what Saul’s reign SHOULD have been like. COULD have been like. But, ultimately WASN’T.
And in the end, he’s a SHADOW of a king. A king who was supposed to guide and lead his people. But, in the end, couldn’t even guide or lead HIMSELF.
We feel SORRY for him. Sneaking around at night. Searching desperately for guidance, but not finding it. No strength to go on, but looking for strength in all the wrong places. Hopeless and helpless, abandoned by God.
And perhaps that’s YOU. Desperate for guidance. Desperate for strengthening.
Perhaps you don’t know where to turn. Perhaps you feel like your prayers don’t make it past the ceiling. Perhaps your sinful choices and failures of the past have left you feeling hopeless. You’ve tried everything, and nothing’s worked. You’ve given everything, and you’ve got nothing left to give.
If that’s YOU, then you can rejoice that your king isn’t SAUL. In fact, you can rejoice that your king isn’t DAVID EITHER. Because if we keep reading through the Bible, we see that DAVID wasn’t the ultimate solution EITHER. He wasn’t the RESOLUTION we need. Because he failed TOO.
If you’re without strength and without hope, then you need a king like JESUS.
Jesus, who gives us clear guidance on all we need to know. Jesus, God’s final and ultimate communication. Hebrews 1 says
1:1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
And as Jesus SPOKE his words of guidance to his disciples, many found them too difficult to follow. In John 6, Jesus said to his disciples, “Are you going to leave TOO?”
And Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? YOU have the words of eternal life.” He’s the king who guides you when you’re lost and hopeless. The ONLY guide.
And he’s the king who gives strength when you’re weak and helpless. In Mt 11:28 he says
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
He’s the ultimate RESOLUTION to all our COMPLICATIONS.
In fact, that’s what Tolkien said in his essay. A good ending, a resolution, gives us JOY. And he said that’s what we find in JESUS. He called Jesus’ incarnation (his coming to earth) the good ending of the story of man’s history. And he called the resurrection the good ending of the story of the incarnation. And our experience of that story, like ALL good stories, is one of JOY.
Come to me, said Jesus. All you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you REST.