Love Yourself to Death

1 Samuel 31:1-6
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, July 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001, P.G. Mathew

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” But the 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.

1 Samuel 31:1-6

“Love yourself to death!” This describes the life of King Saul, whom we read about in the book of 1 Samuel. It is speaking about a person who will not submit to God, who will not listen to his word, who will not love God. It is speaking about an arrogant, unregenerate person, who demonstrates that he is unregenerate because he does not believe God and do his will. It is speaking about the person who says, “I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it how I want to do it. Who are you to tell me what to do?” It is speaking about the culture in which we find ourselves-the culture of autonomy and self-love.

“Love Yourself to Death” is the story of King Saul, the first king of Israel. To him the greatest commandment was, “Love yourself with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He would rather affirm himself than deny himself. He would rather gain the whole world and lose his soul. He would rather seek first his own kingdom and glory rather than seeking first the kingdom of God. He would rather be self-centered and famous in this world than God-centered and inherit the kingdom of God.

The life of Saul is a warning to all in the church today. It is a warning especially to those who call themselves Christians but are not regenerate. Such people will not live for the glory of God in the saving faith and persevere to the very end. In this context I want to introduce you to a great bishop of the Anglican church in the last century named J. C. Ryle. Bishop Ryle wrote an article, “Are You Regenerate?” which gives tests by which we can determine if we truly have been born again. Saul was not regenerate; thus, he loved himself to death.

We want to examine four points concerning the life of this unregenerate: first, Saul, the desire of the people; second, Saul’s disobedience to God; third, the distress Saul experienced because of his disobedience; and, fourth, Saul’s tragic death.

The Desire of the People

In 1 Samuel 8 we read that the Israelite people grew weary of the invisible God guiding them in battle and leading them to victory, as he had done through Samuel and the judges before him. As Samuel’s judgeship was coming to an end, the people decided they wanted a visible person to be their king, just as the surrounding nations had. In 1 Samuel 8:4-5 we read, “So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all other nations have.'”

Samuel was displeased at this request of the people and so was God. By expressing their desire to be like other nations, the people were expressing their unbelief and discontent with God as their King. God did not want his people to be like other nations; he wanted them to be different. But the people would not listen. In 1 Samuel 8:19-20 we read, “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'” How soon these people had forgotten that the One who had fought their battles was the Lord!

In response to the people’s request, God directed Samuel to give them a king. Saul, the son of Kish, came from a rich family of the tribe of Benjamin. The Scriptures tell us he was physically handsome, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites. In fact, the Bible says Saul was a head taller than all the others. This tall, rich, handsome man appeared to be the perfect answer to the people’s request for a king. Saul was the desire of the people, the people’s choice.

When Saul was identified as king by Samuel, the people shouted, “Long live the king!” and were glad with God’s provision. But external beauty is no guarantee of the internal beauty of a regenerate heart that loves God and submits to him. In Saul’s case, there was no regeneration, despite his handsome outward appearance.

Saul reminds us of Eliab, the oldest son of Jesse. In 1 Samuel 16 we find Samuel coming to the house of Jesse to anoint a son of Jesse as the next king of Israel, in accordance with the word of God. I suspect that Eliab, like Saul, was also tall, impressive, and handsome. When Samuel saw Eliab, he became thoroughly convinced that he was to be the next king. He declared, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord,” and made preparations to anoint Eliab.

What was the only problem with Samuel’s plan? Eliab was not the Lord’s anointed! In 1 Samuel 16:7 God gives a principle which serves as a warning to all of us: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” How tragic it is that we are fascinated with appearance, with externalism, with height, with beauty, with accomplishments, with education! But God looks at the heart.

Saul also reminds us of another unregenerate man, David’s son Absalom. In 2 Samuel 14:25 we are told, “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him.” We are also told that Absalom was so vain that when he cut his hair once a year or so, he would weigh it and carefully record the weight in the royal register. In fact, the Scriptures tell us Absalom’s cut hair weighed five and a half pounds or so.

The handsome Absalom was thoroughly convinced that he was better than his father David and that he would succeed David as king of Israel, whether such a plan was ordained by God or not. In fact, in 2 Samuel 18:18 we read, “During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.'” Elsewhere the Scripture tells us that Absalom had three sons, so it is possible they all had died by then. So we read, “He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.” Saul and Absalom are examples of the problem of falling in love with ourselves, being impressed with ourselves, and loving ourselves to death.

God gave Saul as king to Israel because the people wanted to be led by a visible king rather than by the God of Israel, who is the invisible King of kings and Lord of lords. So when Saul was anointed king by Samuel, the Holy Spirit came upon him and he prophesied. Later we read that the Holy Spirit came upon him another time with power, enabling him to fight against Nahash the Ammonite, who was planning to destroy Jabesh Gilead.

But Saul was an unregenerate person, so he did not continue to be led by the Spirit of God. Saul’s faith was a temporal faith. As every unregenerate person eventually does, Saul stopped walking in faith. He refused to heed the solemn words Samuel gave in his parting counsel, as recorded in 1 Samuel 12:14-15: “If you fear the Lord and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God, good! But if you do not obey the Lord and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you as it was against your fathers.”

The Disobedience of Saul

Saul did not pay any attention to the solemn counsel of Samuel. He did not submit to God and obey his clear direction. He refused to come under the rule of Israel’s king as a deputy king; rather, he wanted to be the sovereign king. He rebelled and disobeyed God and, therefore, he was eventually destroyed.

Saul’s disobedience was demonstrated in several instances. In 1 Samuel 10 Samuel told Saul to wait in Gilgal until Samuel, the authorized priest, could come and offer sacrifices to God. This was a test designed by God. But Saul hated being just the king. He wanted to consolidate all power in himself and be king, prophet, and priest of Israel. So Saul assumed the role of priest and offered sacrifices before Samuel came. By refusing to wait for Samuel, Saul failed his first test.

When Samuel arrived in Gilgal, he rebuked Saul, saying, “You acted foolishly.” In biblical understanding, foolishly means godlessly. Saul had acted as a fool, as one who lives as though there is no God, as one who acts lawlessly, autonomously. A fool is in love with himself and does what he wants to do, regardless of what God says.

God is gracious, so in 1 Samuel 15 he tested Saul again by giving him clear instruction to completely destroy the Amalekites, the enemies of Israel. However, Saul failed this test also. He destroyed some of the Amalekites and their possessions, but he spared the king, Agag, and some of the best livestock. Yet despite his partial obedience, Saul was very pleased with his military performance. He was so pleased, in fact, that, like Absalom did later on, he set up a monument in his own honor at Carmel, south of Hebron. In the Hebrew this monument is called yad, which means “hand,” which in Hebrew stands for power. Saul set up his monument, not in honor of God’s power, but to the praise of his own hand, his own power.

What was Saul’s problem? Because he was unregenerate, he would never bring himself to praise, worship, or glorify God. As one who loved himself to death, Saul was a self-pleaser who was fascinated with himself. He had no fear of God and used religion to promote his own interest and bring glory to himself. Because Saul disobeyed God and rejected the light of God’s word of instruction, God rejected Saul. From 1 Samuel 15 onward Saul walked in deep darkness.

In 1 Samuel 15:30 we begin to see the real motivation of this unregenerate man. Having been confronted with his disobedience, Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me so that I may worship the Lord your God.” Notice the phrase “your God.” Bishop Ryle tells us that Martin Luther spoke about people going to hell because they could not use possessive pronouns in such phrases as “the Lord is myshepherd.” Because Saul was unregenerate, he could only refer to the God of Israel as “the Lord your God.” Saul was concerned with his own honor, not God’s. Saul stands for all who have the “me” syndrome-everything is focused around “me.” The church is afflicted with this syndrome, especially in modern times.

In John 5:44 Jesus Christ analyzed the “me” syndrome, asking, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” Unbelievers in Jesus Christ are those who seek praise from one another. They cry out, “Honor me!” They are the type of people we read about in John 12:42-43: “Yet at the same time, many even among leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees, they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

The Distress of Saul

This vainglorious and disobedient Saul refused to believe God and come under his rule. The third point we want to speak about is the distress that Saul and his people experienced because of Saul’s sin.

The first thing that happened to Saul was that the Holy Spirit departed from him. Oh, what a tragedy that was! The same thing happened in the life of Samson, as we read in Judges 16:20. The Holy Spirit departed from Samson and he didn’t even know it. This departure of the Spirit from Saul was a great judgment which brought much distress upon him.

At the same time that the Holy Spirit left Saul, an evil spirit came upon him. In Hebrew the word used for “evil” means “injurious.” This evil spirit was sent to torment Saul because he was disobedient to God’s clear instruction and had treated God with contempt. Because Saul sought his own glory, he was now rejected by the Lord and his Holy Spirit. Additionally, Saul was now deprived of the word of God that guides and comforts God’s people. Saul continued to live and make decisions until God put him to death, but he was walking in deeper and deeper darkness.

What about you? Are you walking in darkness? Oh, yes, you are living. Yes, you are making decisions. But if you are not seeking God, your decisions are all wrong.

In Proverbs 4:18-19 we find a contrast between the nature of a believer and that of an unbeliever. In verse 18 we read, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” Just picture one gleam of light, then another, and another, and so on, until the path of the righteous is filled with the brightness of God’s glory. Contrast that with verse 19, where we read, “But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.” This is the distress of unbelievers. Yes, they are walking, they are going, they are coming, they are making decisions, they are getting married, they are buying, and they are selling. But it is all movement in the realm of deep darkness.

The second effect of Saul’s disobedience is that he became afraid and fearful. That is exactly what happens when a person walks in darkness. If we do not have the Holy Spirit and reject the word of God, we will be afraid. This great man who fought against the Ammonites trembled before the Philistines and their champion, Goliath, as we read in 1 Samuel 17. Goliath challenged the Israelite army, and in verse 11 we read, “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.” This is what happens to the disobedient person. He has no life, he is filled with fear, and he experiences disaster.

Goliath wasn’t the only person Saul feared. As we read in 1 Samuel 18:12, “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul,” and in 1 Samuel 18: 15 we read, “When Saul saw how successful [David] was, he was afraid of him.” Saul also feared the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 28:5 we read, “When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.” In 1 Samuel 28:15 we read, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why did you disturb me by bringing me up?'” What was Saul’s reply? “I am in great distress. . . . The Philistines are fighting against me . . . .”

The third effect of Saul’s disobedience is that he no longer experienced any comfort from God. A person can be a big man, a tall man, a handsome man, a highly educated man, a rich man, but if he is a rebel, he will be full of terror and fear. In 1 Samuel 28:16 we find the real reason for Saul’s distress: “Samuel said, ‘Why do you consult me now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy?'” God resists the proud and arrogant; thus, Saul could find no strength and comfort in God and lived in the awful reality that God was at enmity with him.

The lack of comfort Saul experienced is in stark contrast with the great comfort David received from God. For example, in 1 Samuel 30 we find David returning to Ziklag and discovering that the entire town was burned up, and that his wives and children as well as his men’s wives and children had been taken away by raiding Amalekites. There was nothing left but total devastation. Yet, unlike Saul, David was a child of God, so in verse 6 we read, “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.”

Saul did not have such comfort. Yes, he was tall, rich, and powerful. But he was abandoned by God, and thus he became a man who was fearful and rejected by God-a distressed man.

Much of Saul’s distress came from the fact that, because he was abandoned by God, God no longer revealed himself to Saul through his word. What a tragedy! No longer did the prophet bring God’s word to Saul. As we believe and do the word of God, we will receive the blessing from the Lord. PGM But if we disobey again and again, our minds will begin to degenerate. No more will the gleam of the dawn come to us to light our way to God. God does not speak to those he has abandoned.

We read about this tragic consequence of Saul’s disobedience in 1 Samuel 28:6: “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” God no longer spoke to Saul.

At this point, let me ask you: Is this happening to you? Do you look into the Bible, but it is not speaking to you? It is as if there is nothing in it. You have your trouble; you look at the Bible; but the Bible refuses to speak to you. If so, I urge you to repent and seek God before you are abandoned like Saul.

In 1 Samuel 28:15 we read, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me?’ ‘I am in great distress,’ Saul said. ‘The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams.'” What distress that God will not speak to you.

Not only that, in his distress Saul sought the mutterings of witches for guidance. That is another tragedy. First Samuel 15:23 tells us that rebellion is like the sin of divination, but Saul literally went to listen to witches. Isaiah 8 gives us some indication of what happens when people turn away from Scripture and seek other sources of guidance. In Isaiah 8:19 we read, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God.” This is the distress of God-abandoned people.

God has given us his Holy Scriptures for our comfort, hope, and encouragement. In fact, God’s word is written down for that specific purpose. The Bible is the soul food that strengthens our spirit. Thus, if you say you are so busy that you don’t have time to inquire of the Lord and serve him, I urge you to repent and begin to seek God. If you say, “God, I know you understand that I have oxen, I have fields, I just got married and I have business to do. I am sure you understand all these things. I have no need right now to come to your feast,” I urge you to change. If you don’t, you can be sure that soon the word of God will stop coming to you and you will be distressed.

Finally, Saul was given over to a reprobate, or depraved, mind. I myself have seen people who refused to listen to God. Eventually their minds degenerate so much that they begin to experience mental problems and require certain medicines. I am not speaking against the use of medications to help with mental illness. But there are some who are using such medicines because they didn’t listen to the word of God.

The book of Isaiah says, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. . . Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10). When we don’t understand the word of God, it is because of divine abandonment. Our minds are degenerating.

In Romans 1:21 we read, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” This is what happens to people who reject the light of God’s truth. In verse 25 we read, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie. . . .” This is what those who hate God do. “I hate truth. Give me lies,” they say, not realizing that their minds have become darkened and defiled as they are given over to lies. In verse 28 we read, “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done,” and in verses 29-32 we are given a list what such people do because of their depraved minds.

Saul became so depraved that he destroyed the town of Nob, the town of the priests, first killing eighty-five priests and then killing the rest of the population. The man who would not kill all the Amalekites turned around and killed the priests of God. This illustrates the mental degeneracy of a God-abandoned person.

In 1 Samuel 10:10 we read that the Holy Spirit came upon Saul after he was anointed by Samuel and he began to prophesy. But in 1 Samuel 18:10 we read about a different type of prophesying: “The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul and he was prophesying in his house.” This is a picture of demonization. Saul’s mind was gone-it was completely under the control of demons-and we are told he was prophesying, but that phrase should be given the meaning that he was prophesying evil things. The same was true of Judas when he betrayed Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us the devil prompted him and entered him, causing him to act in an evil way.

This is what happens when people will not honor and obey the word of God and come under God’s order. They are handed over to Satan, they experience serious degeneracy of mind and demonization, and they become insensitive, cruel, and wicked.

The Death of Saul

The final consequence of Saul’s self-love was death. In 1 Samuel 31 we read that the Philistines were coming against Saul and his army. Earlier, in 1 Samuel 7, we read that when Samuel was alive, the Philistines came, but God thundered and gave a great victory that lasted as long as Samuel lived. But even though God gave them such a great victory, the people asked for a king to guide them like the other nations had, and God gave them King Saul, who himself then became reprobate.

In 1 Samuel 31:1-3 we find the end of this tall, handsome, rich man-the people’s choice for king-who would not obey God: “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.” The Septuagint says they wounded Saul in the stomach, critically, mortally, so that nothing could be done.

As we said at the beginning of this study, Saul stands for Christians who are not regenerate, who will not obey God, who will not persevere, who will not live by faith, and who treat the word of God with contempt. Saul’s story is a sad one. He desired to use God to promote his own power and glory, but he would not submit to God or obey him. Instead of denying himself and seeking God’s kingdom first and foremost, he chose to love himself and grab power.

Saul chose to gain his life, and he lost everything. The Bible tells us the Holy Spirit departed from him. He lost the word of God, he lost the kingdom, he lost his children, and he lost his mind. He became a crazy, fearful fool, as he himself acknowledged in 1 Samuel 26:21, and ended up seeking answers through witchcraft because God no longer spoke to him.

In 1 Samuel 26 we read about an opportunity David had to kill Saul. Because David trusted in God, he did not take advantage of this opportunity to kill his enemy, but in verse 10 he prophesied, “As surely as the Lord lives, the Lord himself will strike him. Either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish.” On Mount Gilboa David’s prophecy came true.

The Tragic End of Saul

In 1 Samuel 31 we are told the Israelites fled while many fell slain. Saul’s sons were slain and Saul was mortally wounded. But even in his last moments we are not told Saul received any comfort from the Lord. Saul wanted to die as a hero, so he fell on his own sword, dying as proudly and arrogantly as he had lived. Of the four people in the Bible who committed suicide, Saul was the first one. He loved himself to death.

This is the end of all who love themselves and do not love God with all their mind. It is the tragedy of all who seek glory for themselves and do not live for the glory of God. It is the tragedy of all who seek to be number one. It is the tragedy of all who do not submit to God and obey his commands.

This was also the tragedy of Absalom, that most handsome and rebellious of David’s sons. In 2 Samuel 18:9 we read that Absalom was caught in an oak tree by his beautiful hair as he fled the armies of David. David’s men found him hanging in the tree and by divine providence threw javelins into his heart, killing him. Then they cut him down, threw the proud Absalom into a big pit, and piled rocks over him. When King David heard the news of his son’s death, he was shaken to the very core of his being and cried out, “O my son Absalom! My, son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you-O Absalom, my son, my son!” But Absalom had brought his death upon himself by his proud behavior.

Like Absalom, Saul was not regenerate. His faith was a very temporary faith, not the saving faith that perseveres to the very end. He refused to love God and obey his will; he did not persevere to the end; he did not love God’s word; and he was rejected of God.

Saul sought his own honor by dishonoring God. But in 1 Samuel 2:30 God tells us, “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be despised.” Certainly, Saul was despised. He loved himself to eternal death, and all who follow him will suffer the same fate.

Deny Yourself to Life

There is another King who did not love himself to death-the sinless God who became man, the Lord Jesus Christ. Out of his great love for us, he came into this world to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. He is the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. King David could only cry, “If only I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” But Jesus Christ, the Son of David and the Lord of David, did die in the place of all the rebel Absaloms of the world who trust in him. That is why we proclaim to you the good news that all who trust in Jesus shall love him and live for him forever.

The way of life is not the way of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. The way of life is the way of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus asked, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Saul is an example of someone who gained the world, but lost his soul, and those who follow Saul will lose their souls as well.

I hope that all of us will deny ourselves, take up the cross daily, and follow the Son of God, Jesus Christ, by whose death we live now and forever. If we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ, surely we will live! I pray that none of us will imitate the sad, tragic life of Saul, who wanted to be number one, but ended up dead, with his head cut off and his body hung on the wall of Beth Shan.

May God help us to examine ourselves and see whether we are regenerate and have saving faith, and whether we love God and his word and obey him as Lord. May God have mercy upon us that we will be, not like Saul but like God’s Son, Jesus Christ. God has predestinated us to be conformed to the likeness of the Son, who always pleased the Father. He humbled himself and became man, submitting to the death of the cross, from whence he cried, “It is finished.” But before that he prayed, saying, “I have brought you glory in that I have obeyed you.”

May God help us to walk in the light from one degree of light to another, until we come to the perfect light of day. May he forgive us all our sins, cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and help us to live always with an eye to the end. May we regulate our lives that we will live, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God, in all that we do. May we deny ourselves in this life, that we may enjoy life eternal in the life to come. Amen.