Finding God's Mercy When You Fail
Have you ever wondered if you were beyond God’s mercy? Maybe you were given a host of opportunities in life, but you squandered them and are left with little or nothing to show for it. Maybe you hurt people and caused a lot of pain, and you can’t make it right. Will God forgive even you? Thankfully, God has given us the Bible so we can answer such crucial questions. We can learn a lot about God’s mercy by reading about King Saul in the first book of Samuel.
Saul wasn’t a king who struggled with idolatry; he always served the Lord. Yet, Saul was a king who just couldn’t bring himself to obey (1 Sam. 13:8-14; 15:1-10). He put himself and his own honor before obedience to the law. Even when the Lord told him that his reign was over, Saul clung to his throne with the iron grip of jealousy (1 Sam. 19).
In dying by his own hand, falling on his sword to avoid capture by the Philistines (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul attempted to spare himself from the curse of the uncircumcised. Ironically, his life ended depicting the classic consequence of sin. If there was ever a story demonstrating how “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), this is one.
Quite literally, Saul died by his own sin, and this was God’s punishment. Saul failed to execute the Lord’s wrath upon the Amalekites, and so that wrath fell upon him. Like all sinners, Saul attempted to escape his fate and free himself from God’s punishment. He tried to save himself by his own hand.
There Is No “Self-Salvation” from Sin
There is no escaping God and his punishment. Indeed, Saul thought falling on his sword would spare him the shame of being savagely abused by the Philistines, but it happened anyway. The next day when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and desecrated his body, cut off his head, and stripped him of his royal armor—just as he feared. The Philistines did to Saul what David did to Goliath, and then the Philistines gloated about the evil they had perpetrated against Israel’s king.
The Philistines deposited Saul’s armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, the goddess of war. According to 1 Chronicles 10:10, Saul’s head was placed in the temple of Dagon. To deposit such trophies in a temple is to give credit to the temple’s god for the victory. The Philistines then proceeded to proclaim their triumph throughout the land, praising Ashtaroth and Dagon for their victory over Saul and Yahweh.
As a king, it is bad enough to have your people die for your own sins, but it is even worse to dishonor the holy name of the Lord. So, in his sin Saul gave the Philistines an occasion to gloat in their idols; he brought shame upon the name of God.
The Philistines took the headless bodies of Saul and his sons and nailed them to the wall of Beth Shan. They exposed Saul’s body to the elements—and to the scavengers and vultures. As the law says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). This was not some victory of an idol but rather God’s just punishment. For his royal disobedience, the Lord’s curse fell upon Saul. Truly, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). The day of the Lord’s judgment and wrath is a dark day.
A Ray of Hope
And yet, just as the shadow of wrath appears to be total, it is pierced by a ray of hope. Imagine seeing your king beheaded and nailed to a wall. What could be more despairing? Once again, Israel could cry out, “Ichabod!” (“The glory has departed from Israel!” [1 Sam. 4:21].) And yet, as all other Israelites ran away in hopelessness, a few good men stood up.
The valiant men of Jabesh-gilead rose to the occasion. These men remembered what Saul had done for them. In 1 Samuel 11, the Ammonites had besieged Jabesh-gilead and were going to enslave them cruelly. But then—in one of his few truly spotless acts—Saul marshaled Israel and became their savior, delivering his people from torture and slavery. So the men of Jabesh returned the favor. During the night, they stole the bodies of Saul and his sons and delivered them from exposure and further desecration.
Once they returned to Jabesh, the men burned the bodies, which is quite curious since cremation was not common practice in Israel. Of course, this wasn’t even proper cremation, since they saved the bones for burial. It is likely that—having been desecrated by the uncircumcised Philistines—the bodies were burned to purify them for burial.
Either way, the men of Jabesh intended it as an honor to Saul and his sons. For once they gathered their bones, the men buried them under a tamarisk tree, which is a sacred spot. The men of Jabesh honored Saul and his sons by giving him a holy burial fit for a king, suitable for a member of God’s covenant. In his life, Saul couldn’t keep himself from sin. In his death, the Lord punished him for his sins. But, in his burial, the mercy of God fell upon Saul.
Yes, this was a great mercy for Saul. He deserved to be left nailed to the wall, but mercifully, God granted him a burial in a holy spot with his sons. The account of Saul’s life—the story of a tragic sinner with a tragic, though fitting, end—still makes room before the credits roll for mercy to have the last word. On the day of judgment, mercy triumphed. In his death, Saul was forsaken by God; but in his burial, God granted Saul the sign of his mercy and favor.
God’s Surpassing Mercy in Christ
Is this not an amazing picture of God’s surpassing mercy? One cannot but think of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. There are some workmen in God’s kingdom who build with wood and stubble, so that on the last day their labors are burned up. Such people will suffer loss, though they themselves will be saved, but only as through fire. How the reign of Saul resembles this! His life and reign were marred by so much sin and folly, and yet in the end, God’s mercy covered even him.
Saul reminds us of the thief on the cross—a man who lived a life of crime and wickedness. He was a criminal who was suffering the just consequences of his actions. Yet, even upon one like this thief, in the agony of his sin, Jesus smiled. The thief prayed in faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And to this prayer of faith Jesus responded with the sweet words of mercy, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
We Are No Better Than Saul
This is the mercy of Christ. It is a mercy that reminds us that we too are sinners. Indeed, such mercy frees us to be honest—that we are no better than Saul. There is no sin, no matter how heinous, that is beyond us. But for the grace of God, there we go as well. We cannot save ourselves. In our sin we would all perish, falling under God’s wrath and curse forever.
Yet, in Christ mercy has triumphed. His mercy covers all your sins; his mercy forgives all your sins, every last one. And why can Christ’s mercy perform such wonders? How can he be so merciful? He can because Christ suffered the full punishment for your sin.
For his sin, Saul deserved to be nailed to the wall and exposed. Yet, isn’t this the very curse that Jesus suffered? Yes, as the righteous one, Jesus was nailed to the cursed tree. He was exposed to the reproach of God’s enemies. Jesus lived a perfect life, but in his death he willingly became like Saul. He bore in his own flesh the punishment for your sin, so that his mercy might cover all your sin. This is the surpassing glory of Christ’s mercy.
In Christ, the Ending of Your Story Has Already Been Written
You might be thinking, “I’m not as bad as Saul. I don’t need that much mercy.” Yes, we can wrongly think this at times. Yet, it isn’t just that we think we are too good. Another challenge to our faith is to think we are too bad—too unworthy, too far gone for mercy to reach us. We can fall into despair, fall prey to hopelessness, and be tempted to believe that Christ just can’t forgive this. But in Saul, we see the unending reach of Christ’s mercy. Even for the sin of suicide, God showed mercy to Saul.
Mercy triumphed over judgment for Saul, and so also for you. Through faith alone, you find forgiveness in the surpassing and sweet mercy of Jesus Christ who died for you. It is this lavish mercy that is your aid through the tragedies of life. Indeed, so many chapters of our lives have sad endings. Like Saul, falling on your sword may seem attractive in life’s most difficult moments.
But Christ’s mercy says, “Do not despair. Do not lose hope, for you have living hope in Christ, an imperishable and incorruptible hope.” May you rejoice in this hope, and may you embrace it in faith.
Every Christian has the sure hope of the forgiveness of sin and the resurrection. In Christ, the end of your story has already been written, and it is not a tragedy but rather the best of all endings—resurrection from the dead and a life everlasting to glorify God.
On the same day Saul died, another battle was being fought. David was rescuing his own from the Amalekites, and he did not lose one (1 Sam. 30:16-19). Likewise, Christ’s mercy keeps you safe and secure for the happy ending of his kingdom. May you find comfort and encouragement in the mercy of Christ and courageously serve him in faith until he comes again.
Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel by Michael Horton