by Peter Waller
The narrative of the life of Saul in 1 Samuel makes for gloomy reading. A tall, handsome young man receives a stunning call from God and is anointed the first king of Israel. Shy at first, early heroics under the influence of the Spirit of God win over his detractors and embolden him to lead. More battle success follows before Saul’s character cracks in some high-pressure situations. It becomes apparent he isn’t fit to lead God’s people. By the time he dies on a lonely battlefield, the armies of Israel vanquished at the hand of the Philistines, his sins are truly staggering. Jealousy and insecurity led him to attempt the murder of David and Jonathan, his own son, and drove him to execute 85 priests of God and their families with scant evidence against them. And on his last night alive he consults a medium, despite knowing doing so is forbidden by God. What insights can we glean from his life that may prevent our lives from becoming similarly ill-spent?
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. (1 Peter 3:14-15)
Saul’s first two major sins were committed because he feared men more than God. Faced with an army that was scattering and a priest who was dithering, Saul overstepped his duties and offered a sacrifice he had no business offering. On another occasion he caved in to the will of his men and let them take some livestock after destroying the Amalekites, going against God’s instruction to destroy every living thing, including the animals. To be sure in both cases he was under great pressure from men, but this only served to reveal the hierarchy in his heart. He feared man first, God second. This led him down a path of sin and devastation and he never returned to God. He layered sin on sin, unlike David who dealt with sin by repenting. His own story became more important than the story of God. He esteemed his own name above that of God’s.
Following these sins, Saul was told by Samuel that God had taken away the kingdom from him and would give it to another. Saul’s response to hearing this news is galling. He pleads with Samuel to appear in public with him so that Samuel’s (and God’s) disapproval of him would remain hidden from the people. Although Saul knows the root of his sin is his preoccupation with what man thinks of him, when Samuel confronts him his response is not to attempt to make right with God but rather to preserve his image before the people.
Saul, as I see it, was familiar with God. He did not see him for who he is – a consuming fire – and so he did not revere him as he ought to have. Perhaps he saw God as a merciful, easy-going God who was more likely to overlook sin than he was to actually do anything. This is evidence of how poor our memories sometimes are and how slow we are to comprehend who God is even though we see him act clearly. Saul’s calling and rise to king had God’s fingerprints all over it. It was not a hard “case to crack”; Saul became king through divine intervention and lots of it. Yet if Saul was a detective, it seems he would have arrested the wrong man. His life as king began with God, yet was lived as if it began with himself.
Next time I’ll consider how David was prevented from becoming overly familiar with God.