On Mount Gilboa

By John David Clark, Sr. - January, 1994

The nervous King Saul turned away from the warm meal which his servants offered him. A gnawing fear was ruining his appetite, and the hour he dreaded most was quickly drawing near. This would be judgment day for him, and he knew in his heart that there could be no escaping the harvest of destruction which he had so foolishly and violently sown.

The day was growing old, and from his tent on the northwestern crest of Mount Gilboa the worried king could see flames from the Philistine campfires turn into soft grey threads and rise from the Jezreel Valley far below, and he could smell the aroma of their firewood and of their suppers. Normally, he would have savored the earthy smells of camp, even an enemy's camp, but nothing was pleasant to him now. Not even his spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley. From where he stood, it stretched east and west like a colorful, cunningly crafted quilt laid out by the divine hand for the blessing of men. But none of this attracted King Saul's attention today.

What was he to do? There was no one remaining who could contact God for him now. In a mad rage, he had murdered all the Lord's priests, and the only priest who survived, young Abiathar, had fled to David's camp and was hiding with him somewhere in the desert country of southern Judah. (Rumor even had it that David was with this Philistine army which now camped in the valley, and would himself fight with them against Israel tomorrow!) Saul had prayed and made many sacrifices, but there was no answer from God. Frantically, he had pleaded for a vision or a dream from the Lord - anything - but in vain. He was a desperate, lonely man. Desertion from his army was being counted in the hundreds now, and Israel's finest fighting men were either at home or with David. The "evil spirit from the Lord" had slowly driven Saul to the brink of insanity, and now his thoughts were often confused and contradictory. If only he had killed David when he had him cornered in the Wilderness of Maon! If only he had never tried to kill him at all! If only he had obeyed God! If only God had never made him king! But now.... too late, too late. The Philistines were here in great force, and they were obviously determined to conquer and humiliate Israel and King Saul or suffer disaster in the attempt. A battle the next day was inevitable.

Studying the numbers of Philistine troops with the eye of an experienced warrior, Saul knew that without divine intervention there was no hope of victory, especially with his own remaining soldiers sensing the certainty of defeat. But how would he get help from a God who would not answer him? He knew that God must still regard Jonathan's prayers. Yes, his noble and righteous son Jonathan was still by his side. Although Jonathan was David's trusted friend, he had made up his mind to remain by the side of his father, the king, at least for this battle. But Saul had little hope that Jonathan would be able to save him from reaping the awful harvest which he had sown. Filled with trepidation and deep in thought, Saul meandered among the trees on Gilboa's wooded brow, constantly turning his head toward the Philistines camped in the distance, nervously fidgeting with the beautifully carved handle of his gilded sword which swung at his side. Driven beyond the border of sanity by condemnation and by fear of God's vengeance, Saul finally decided that if God wouldn't answer him by ordinary means, he would find someone who would give him an answer by extraordinary means: he would locate a witch.

"Then said Saul unto his servants, `Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.' And his servants said to him, `Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor'. And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night."

To the north of Mount Gilboa, across the Jezreel Valley, there is a very high hill called the Hill of Moreh. The Philistines were camped at the southern base of the hill, in plain view of the mountain where Saul stood that evening. En-dor, the little village where lived the witch to whom Saul would go this night, lay on the north of the Hill of Moreh. This meant that in order for Saul to reach the witch's house, he would have to make the long descent from Gilboa, and then navigate his way around the Philistine camp to the north side of the Hill of Moreh in the dark. It was a difficult and risky venture, to be sure, but Saul was a desperate man, and driven by sheer terror which was mounting by the hour, he managed to accomplish the arduous journey. When he finally arrived at the witch's house, the disguised king got right to the point.

"He said, `I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.' And the woman said unto him, `Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath [killed] those who have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. Why then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?' And Saul sware to her by the Lord, saying, `As the Lord liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.'"

For all his efforts, the news which Saul obtained from the witch could not have been worse: Tomorrow, he and his sons -even good Jonathan - would be dead, and the army of Israel, shattered. "Then Saul fell immediately all along the earth, and was sore afraid.... And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night."

Poor Saul. As a young man, strong and tall, he had been chosen and anointed by the Lord. In time, however, he proved to be unfaithful to God's truth and was now forsaken by God's Spirit and turned over to the wrath of his enemies. The only merciful element of his story is that tomorrow he would be put out of his earthly misery. The completely distraught king had to be lifted that night by his servants from the floor of the witch's house and helped back to camp in the darkness, a darkness which seemed not nearly so frightful as did the wide gulf fixed between his Maker and himself. How could this have happened to him? What spiritual warfare had he fought, and lost, so that now he would lose this natural battle, and with it, his life and his kingdom? In the light of his fear of the heathen who camped in the valley, it is ironic that the reason Saul found himself in this terrible predicament is that he feared God's people more than he had feared God. That is the thing which brought him to helpless tears in the house of a witch.

Some years before, after failing to obey the Lord's commandment in order to please the Israelite men he was suppose to lead, Saul was bluntly confronted by the great prophet Samuel and was forced to confess his real problem. "I have sinned", the bitter king admitted to Samuel, "For I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words, BECAUSE I FEARED THE PEOPLE, and obeyed their voice" (1Sam.15:24). Two generations later, Solomon would note that "The fear of man bringeth a snare, but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe" (Prov.29:25). Saul knew the awful reality of that truth. He had turned from the commandment of the Lord to satisfy the demands of his own people, trying to keep them as his friends, and now he was abandoned, by both God and them, to the will of men who were his cruelest enemies. And where were those men whom Saul had disobeyed God in order to please? Where was their gratitude for his despising God's commandment out of respect for their will? Where now were those who had demanded that he do their will instead of God's - those whose wrath he had feared instead of God's? Gone. All of them gone to a safe place, leaving him (with his fear) to face the Philistines.

Pity David's dear friend Jonathan as well. Fearless as always, he was determined now to be faithful, but it was to a hopeless cause. When he marched with his baggy-eyed father the next morning to battle against the Philistines, it wouldn't matter to him that death was almost certain. Being who he was and what he was, he could not abandon his father and the army of Israel, even though he knew Saul was a foolish and disobedient king. Being a man thoroughly without envy or desire for vain glory, he had harbored hopes of someday being David's right-hand man, and serving the Lord with David when David became king (1Sam.23:16-18). Right now, however, he was doing what David would do if he were here: laying his life down for Israel and the king.

Saul's fear of people, God's people, led to the destruction of his kingdom and heartache for every soul in Israel. The lesson in this is clear: Those who serve the Lord must serve Him without regard to the opinions and desires of those about him. This can be difficult, because the commandments of the Lord are sometimes inconsistent with the will of men, even those people who belong to God. Nevertheless, the man who serves God must always remember that it is God he is serving, and it is from God that he must receive his direction. How many times have I seen God's truth rejected by a man because he looked around to see how many other people believed it! The fear of man. Yet, any biblical student can easily see that when God chose any man, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John the baptist, Jesus, Paul - any man - the proving ground of that man's fate was his willingness to obey God even if most of God's own people, disagreed and misunderstood. Thankfully, there are examples of successes in this divine test, as Saul's story is one of abject failure.

The day after the bloody battle in the valley, Philistine scavengers roved like busy ants across the smoky, pungent battlefield, searching for loot. While cutting rings off stiffened fingers, unwrapping sandal thongs from legs of the fallen, and pillaging deserted tents, they discovered on the slope of Mt. Gilboa the bodies of Saul and Jonathan. Rejoicing in their discovery, they severed Saul's head from his body and sent it to Philistia to hang as a trophy in the temple of their gods. Then, carrying the bodies a few miles east to the newly occupied city of Beth-shean, the Philistines fastened them to the city walls as open proof of their triumph. But the triumph wasn't really theirs at all. The triumph, as always, was God's alone, for Saul's miserable death on the northern rise of Gilboa proved the reality of God's wrath against unfaithful servants. The arrows that took Saul's life did not really belong to the Philistine's. They were God's. And the fact that the Philistines themselves didn't understand that truth made it no less true.

There is truth that is not being preached to the church because ministers fear the reaction of the people of God. The love of money and the security which it provides inspires many more sermons each Sunday than does the love and power of the Holy Ghost. There are those, and I know some of them, who labor intensely to find ways of telling the truth in veiled words which cannot easily be understood, lest they lose their position and prestige among the saints. Like Saul, they may quarrel with the man of God who exposes their sin, but eventually they too will be made to confess their cowardice. Sometimes we are accused by one of these modern day Sauls of "choking the saints with too much meat" because we plainly tell the truth. But my response to that plea is, "Where was that compassion for the well-being of the saints, when they were being choked to death with doctrinal poison?" Have these would-be protectors of the flock ever asked those who are lying to God's people to feed them just a little poison instead of so much, so that they can digest it? No, they have not. And why? For the same reason they want us to make our message less understandable: the fear of the reaction of men. I refuse to feed God's people crumbs! They are priests and kings with Christ, but they are imprisoned within the walls of Christianity. I will tell them to come out. I will tell them that Christianity is an evil institution. I will tell them that they are God's people, and that those without the Holy Ghost are not. And if, after coming to the knowledge of the truth, they determine to remain among the dead, I will be satisfied that, at least, they had a choice. They did, at least, have the opportunity to hear the truth once.

Man of God, get off the fence. Stop fashioning your sermons based upon what you think the reaction to the truth may be, and preach it. For Christ's sake, preach it! If you worry about the reaction, you will never speak plainly the words of eternal life. And besides, the reaction is none of your business. That is between the listener and God. It is your responsibility to make certain that what they hear is the unadulterated Word of the living God. That, and not their reaction, will be the measure by which you will be judged.

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