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The Life of David Series: Better Not Call Saul

Sh’muel leaned on his staff and gazed at the gently-sloping, grass-covered hill in the distance. A group of people stood nearby: a local sheep farmer named Jesse with seven of his strapping sons all seeming somewhat confused, a few of the prominent citizens of Beit-Lechem with anxious looks on their faces, some curious onlookers.

Sh’muel turned to Jesse. “You said he’d be in that direction?”

Jesse nodded. “It shouldn’t be too long now. He just took the flock out this morning, so I doubt he could have gotten too far.”

Sh’muel turned his his wrinkled face once again towards the green hill. “Tending sheep,” he muttered. “How fitting.” Then he chuckled to himself. “The last one was chasing runaway donkeys. Also fitting.”

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By the end of the period of the Judges the twelve tribes of Israel were feeling the effects of a lack of leadership. The author of that book makes that abundantly clear with his closing words:

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The prophet Samuel (Sh’muel in the introduction) temporarily filled the void, but as he was getting on in years the people once again began to voice their desire for a king…”just like all the other nations”. While this might seem like a logical request, wise even, on the part of a people for strong leadership, Scripture tells us in I Samuel 8:7-9 what is at the root of it:

And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.

So the same problem that caused them all the troubles recorded in the book of Judges, namely idolatry, is causing them to now come and ask for a king. And interestingly, God decides to honor their request. Sometimes God gives us our idols so we can see how absolutely miserable they make us.

Meanwhile, a wealthy man named Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin, has noticed that some of his donkeys have gone missing, and so sends his son, Saul, along with a servant, to find them. They are not successful. After searching high and low Saul is ready to give up, but his servant remembers that they are near where the Samuel was dwelling at the time, and suggests that perhaps the prophet could help them find the missing livestock.

Saul’s reaction to his servant’s idea, found in I Samuel 9:7, is instructive, as it gives us a first glimpse into his theology:

Then Saul said to his servant, “But look, if we go, what shall we bring the man? For the bread in our vessels is all gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What do we have?”

In Saul’s head, his relationship with God is purely transactional. He does God a favor (in this case, bringing a gift for His prophet) and in turn God does him a favor. And this tit-for-tat dealing with God will surface over and over throughout Saul’s reign. But more about that later.

When the Saul meets Samuel, he gets the shock of his life. Expecting only to be given the location of his donkeys, he is given the kingdom of Israel. And his reaction upon hearing this news is revealing:

“Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?”

For a primer on why this is significant, you might want to go back and read the background information we laid on the Judah/Benjamin dynamic here and here. But for a quick summary, there are two important facts to remember: 1) Since the days of the patriarchs God has been emphasizing to the people of Israel the primary role to be played by the tribe of Judah and 2) The tribe of Benjamin was almost completely destroyed due to gross sinful behavior – an event the Saul’s grandparents possibly remembered (and maybe participated in?).

So Saul himself is understandably perplexed when Samuel tells him he is to be king. It doesn’t seem to fit the narrative.

Yet despite his initial shock and some shyness at the beginning, Saul proves to be a bold and decisive leader, at least at the beginning. He mobilizes the nation for war, takes on her enemies and wracks up an impressive string of successes.

But, as is always the case, the bad theology we mentioned earlier proves his undoing. Before a battle with Israel’s nemesis, the Philistines, he grows impatient while waiting for Samuel to arrive to make a sacrifice, and thus offers the sacrifice himself. Saul thought the important thing was the sacrifice. God wanted obedience.

Besides this transactional approach to God, Saul also forgot Who put him on the throne, and why. A king over the nation of Israel had the awesome responsibility of shepherding God’s people. But increasingly we see Saul forget this task and become jealous of his own position and authority. Perhaps the most striking example we have is found in I Samuel 14, where God miraculously delivers the Philistines into the hands of Jonathan his son. In a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Saul 1) is more concerned about his orders being followed than the military opportunity before him, 2) hesitates before taking advantage of the Philistine route, 3) gives superfluous orders that serve no purpose except perhaps to re-establish his authority in the face of Jonathan’s initiative, 4) threatens his own son with death for disobeying said orders and 5) when confronted with the very real disobedience of the people, contrives a transactional sacrifice to cover it all over.

Finally things come to a head. In I Samuel 15 we read of God ordering Saul to completely destroy the sinful nation of Amalek, all the people and all the animals. Saul goes to war against them and is given the victory, but fails to completely destroy them as God had ordered. When Samuel confronts him about it, Saul offers the lame excuse that the people were going to offer the animals as a sacrifice. Samuel’s response cuts to the heart of Saul’s bad theology:

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He also has rejected you from being king.”

From this point on there is a marked and steady decline in the fortunes of the once-promising King Saul. And beginning in the next chapter, we meet his successor, David.

But this brief overview of Saul’s life is important, for at least three reasons:

1) As with previous posts, it provides us with essential background, setting the stage, as it were, for the grand entrance of our main character, David.

2) Saul looms large throughout the life of David, even after Saul’s death…even after David’s death. Thus, understanding Saul is important to understanding David. In the future we’re going to refer back to this post. A lot.

3) The lesson Saul’s life teaches us is extremely important. There is a temptation in our Christian lives to see service as a substitute for true repentance and holiness. “I can harbor sin as long as I have the right doctrine/serve in the praise team/tithe…you fill in the blank. And, as Saul’s life shows, that’s not how it works. Indeed, as we will see, this difference in theology is one of the main differences between Saul and the “man after God’s own heart” that we will officially meet in our next installment.

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