Who Killed King Saul?
Bible critics have long been fond of pointing out the differences in Scripture regarding how King Saul died. In fact, on most any extensive list of Old Testament “contradictions” is “the death of Saul.” In his book Biblical Errancy, Dennis McK-insey highlighted 1 Samuel 31:4, 2 Samuel 21:12, 2 Samuel 1:8-10, and 1 Chronicles 10:14 in his section titled simply “Contradictions.”1 Skeptic Steve Wells listed these verses in The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (printed edition) as contradiction #197, asking the simple question, “How did Saul die?”2
So what does the Bible actually say about the death of King Saul?
- First Samuel 31 reveals that Saul “was severely wounded by the archers” (31:3) in Israel’s battle with the Philistines. In fact, it appears that he knew he was mortally wounded because he instructed his armorbearer, saying, “‘Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.’ But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore, Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him” (31:4-5).
- Second Samuel 1 indicates that an Amalekite came to David after Israel’s defeat, presenting him with Saul’s crown and bracelet. The Amalekite told David that, after Saul was wounded and in agonizing pain, the king instructed him to kill him. “So,” the Amalekite said, “I stood over him and killed him, because I was sure that he could not live after he had fallen” (1:8-10).
- Later in 2 Samuel, when David gathered and buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan, the inspired writer noted that “the Philistines had struck down Saul” (21:12).
- Lastly, the chronicler addressed the death of Saul in 1 Chronicles 10:13-14, saying, “So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance. But he did not inquire of the Lord; therefore He [the Lord] killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”
The skeptic wants to know whether Saul killed himself, or if he was killed by the Amalekite, the Philistines, or God. How are these verses not, as Dennis McKinsey put it, “versus”?—“1 Samuel 31:4…versus 2 Samuel 21:12…versus 2 Samuel 1:8-10…versus 1 Chronicles 10:14.”3 How are these scriptures not contradictory?
Differentiating Between a Lie and Inspired Truth
The reader must keep in mind that the Bible writers recorded a number of lies made by various people: Satan lied to Eve (Genesis 3:4); Cain lied to God (Genesis 4:9); Samson lied to Delilah (Judges 16:1-22); David lied to Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-2); The older prophet of 1 Kings 13 lied to the younger prophet—a lie that cost the younger prophet his life; Job’s “friends” repeatedly made false allegations about him throughout the book of Job; Jesus’ enemies frequently lied about Him; etc. Keep in mind that many of the lies recorded in Scripture were told without further comment by the inspired writers. That is, the writers rarely stopped to identify and condemn the lies explicitly (e.g., Moses never explicitly called Satan’s statement in Genesis 3:4 a lie). Instead, the reader is expected to fairly infer what is implied (i.e., God told the truth, while Satan lied).
The young Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1:8-10 told a story that directly contradicts the inspired writer’s account only a few verses earlier. [NOTE: 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book. Thus, 1 Samuel 31:4 and 2 Samuel 1:10 are only separated by 20 brief verses within the same book.] Furthermore, we would not even have the young Amalekite’s words were they not written down by the writer of Samuel. Are we really supposed to conclude that the writer of Samuel could not recall who killed Saul within 20 verses?
Think about it: Who was lying in Genesis 2:17 and 3:4—God or Satan? Who was guilty of speaking falsehoods about Job—the inspired writer (Job 1:1), or Job’s “friendly” false accusers whom the writer quoted at length (e.g., Job 4-5; cf. 42:7-9)? To ask is to answer. Similarly, it should be relatively easy to differentiate between the truthful account of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 and the dishonest report of the young Amalekite (recorded by the same penman) in 2 Samuel 1.
Why would the Amalekite lie, some ask? We are not told. Likely he thought his story, along with Saul’s crown and bracelet, would bring him favor with Saul’s worst enemy and the next king of Israel. He probably had in mind a reward of riches, honor, and power. Instead, David chose to execute him for having the audacity to end the life of (or at least say he ended the life of) a king previously chosen by God Himself (1 Samuel 9). The Amalekite alleged to do something that even David himself would not do (1 Samuel 24:6).
Did the Philistines Kill Saul?
Even if 2 Samuel 1 can be logically explained, what about 2 Samuel 21:12 where the reader is reminded that “the Philistines had struck down Saul”? How can this be true if Saul killed himself (1 Samuel 31:4-6)? Two brief responses should adequately and reasonably answer this inquiry.
First, the words “struck down” (KJV; NKJV; NASB; NIV) are translated from the Hebrew nâkâh. According to Brown, Driver, and Briggs, in their respected Hebrew lexicon, nâkâh can mean everything from “to strike, smite, hit,” and “beat,” to “kill.”4 In his Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, noted Hebrew scholar William Gesenius remarked that nâkâh can mean anything from striking to killing, but it is used “mostly in the sense of hurting.”5 The King James translators used various words to translate nâkâh throughout the Old Testament, including beat, smite, strike, punish, slay, kill, etc. The simple fact is, the penman of 2 Samuel 21:12 could easily have meant that King Saul was seriously struck down on Mount Gilboa, and not that the Philistines “killed him.”
Second, even if it could be proved that 2 Samuel 21:12 means the Philistines “killed” Saul in Gilboa, is there not a legitimate, general sense in which that term could be used? Consider the 21st-century soldier who is mortally wounded in the heat of battle but makes it to a hospital in time to be hooked up to a number of machines, which help to extend his life for a few days. If doctors later remove the ventilator, feeding tube, etc., from the soldier (at the family’s request), and he quickly dies, what might people truthfully report about the man’s death? Surely that he gave his life in the line of duty—that he was “struck down in the heat of battle” while valiantly serving his country. Did the family and doctors kill the soldier, or did the enemy? In one immediate sense, the soldier finally died after being unplugged from various life-sustaining machines. Yet, most everyone would fairly and sensibly see the reality of the matter: a courageous soldier was killed in battle.
In a similar way (though not so courageously), the wicked King Saul was apparently mortally wounded by the Philistines. “The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded” (1 Samuel 31:3). He knew he was “done for.” The battle was lost to the Philistines, and he chose to inflict the final, fatal blow upon himself rather than waiting for what he knew was inevitable. In a more immediate, literal sense, did Saul kill himself? Yes. Is there also a general sense in which one might honestly say the Philistines killed Saul? Surely most fair-minded people would say so.
Did God Kill Saul?
Many years later (between 500-450 B.C.),6 when the chronicler recorded his account of the events surrounding Saul’s death, he also wrote about the Philistine archers who struck Saul (1 Chronicles 10:3), as well as Saul’s subsequent decision to fall on his sword and die (10:4-5). However, the chronicler added the following: “So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance. But he did not inquire of the Lord; therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (10:13-14). Thus, the skeptics claim “contradiction” on this front as well. “How could God have killed Saul if Saul killed himself?”
In the same sense in which “the Lord set a king over” Israel (1 Samuel 12:13; cf. 10:24), the Lord “killed” Saul. Throughout Scripture, the Bible writers repeatedly testify to how God works and accomplishes things providentially (i.e., “God orchestrates His will through natural laws”).7 Did Samuel make Saul a king over Israel? Yes (1 Samuel 12:1). Did the Bible writer not also contend that Israel “made Saul king”? Yes (1 Samuel 11:15). Still, God “was behind” it all. He knew, and His inspired writers prophesied hundreds of years earlier, that Israel would have a king (Genesis 36:31; Deuteronomy 17:14-15). God worked this out “behind the scenes,” while using Samuel and the children of Israel to accomplish His will.
In like manner, God knew ahead of time (1) that He was going to punish Saul for his sins, and (2) how He was going to punish Saul. In fact, He informed Saul of such retribution through the prophet Samuel. The God-inspired prophet revealed to Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23). What’s more, God used the spirit of Samuel to speak to Saul from the realm of the dead. Exactly one day before Saul’s death, God arranged for the departed soul of Samuel to speak to Saul a divinely inspired message, saying,
[T]he Lord has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines (1 Samuel 28:17-19).
Did the Lord use the Philistines to kill Saul? Yes. Was God working providentially to arrange such warranted capital punishment? Absolutely. God knew what He was going to do, how He was going to do it, and when it would be accomplished. Indeed, as the chronicler recorded (1 Chronicles 10:13-14), there is a legitimate sense in which God justifiably killed Saul. Such Divine operation through various individuals and nations (such as the Philistines) is seen consistently throughout Scripture. The same God Who created the world with “the breath of His mouth” (Psalm 33:6), and the same God Who is currently “upholding all things with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3), is the same God Who has worked and currently is orchestrating His will through natural laws. Anyone who is very familiar with the Bible should not be surprised to read truthful expressions such as “He [God] killed him [Saul],” even if God did not actually “pull the trigger.”
Answering the question, “Who killed King Saul?” provides Bible students with a golden opportunity to be reminded of three vital principles of interpretation. First, context is always critical to any correct understanding of any account or conversation. Part of getting “context” is identifying “who is talking?” In the case of 2 Samuel 1, an uninspired Amalekite is alleging to have killed King Saul, and one should no more believe his claim than we should believe that Cain didn’t know where Abel was or Samson didn’t know from whence his strength came.
Second, remember that a “contradiction” is not a “contradiction” if words are used in different senses. In the case of “Who killed King Saul?,” God, Saul, and the Philistines all truthfully “killed” him in different senses.
Third and finally, the Bible writers often harmoniously supplemented each other’s accounts. Reading all accounts gives the Bible student the best understanding of anything and everything the Bible teaches.8 Since the “sum” or “entirety” of God’s “word is truth” (Psalm 119:160), we should refrain from lazy, faulty, “partial” interpretations, and we should hunger for all of God’s Word, which when rightly divided, gives us the complete, truthful picture that God has painted for us.9
1 Dennis McKinsey (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus), p. 71.
2 Steve Wells (2013), The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB), p. 1610.
3 McKinsey, p. 71.
4 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (1906), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, www.studylight.org/lexicons/eng/hebrew/5221.html.
5 William Gesenius (1979 reprint), Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, https://www.studylight.org/lexicons/eng/hebrew/5221.html.
6 See Eric Lyons (2017), “A Flawed Assumption Many Make About Kings and Chronicles,” https://apologeticspress.org/a-flawed-assumption-many-make-about-kings-and-chronicles-5421/.
7 Kyle Butt (2016), “God’s Providence and the Problem of Evil,” https://apologeticspress.org/gods-providence-and-the-problem-of-evil-5294/.
8 Or any book for that matter. We best understand rulebooks, math books, biographies, etc. when we read them in their totality. Why would we not read the Bible in this same manner—and even more carefully and thoroughly if it is, in fact, the Word of God?
9 Cf. 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17; cf. also Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19.
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