Saul, King of Israel

Only three kings ruled over the whole of the twelve tribes of Israel: Saul, David and Solomon. They ruled for a total of 120 years, and then in Rehoboam’s reign the kingdom was divided into two: Israel, the northern (with ten tribes) and Judah, the southern (with two tribes).

Saul, the first king, was admirably suited for kingship as he possessed so many necessary qualifications. These enabled him to make a good start as king, but gradually things got worse until some forty years later he lay mortally wounded on the battle field, the dying leader of the defeated armies of Israel on Mount Gilboa, 1 Sam. 31. 3. The Philistines (the enemies of Israel) had won a great victory, and the armies of Israel were in retreat and confusion. Saul committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the uncircumcised Philistines. So, tragically, Saul ended his days in suicide, v. 4.

David lamented over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan by saying, “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen”, 2 Sam. 1. 19. The mighty man Saul had fallen, so had his warrior son Jonathan.

The kingdom no longer belonged to him nor to his descendants. It now belonged to David (the man after God’s own heart), and eventually David took up the reins of kingship.

Yet this story, which is one of the most tragically dismal in the Scriptures, need not have ended that way. If only Saul had listened to the voice of God through the prophet Samuel, things might have turned out so differently. Sadly, the story is repeated time and again — even today, as those with potential for God never see it fully realized. They end up looking back on a life wasted as far as God is concerned, with all the ultimate sadness which that means.

Saul was a Benjamite, the son of Kish, 1 Sam. 9. 1-2. He was chosen by God to be king of Israel and he reigned for forty years over God’s people. He won notable victories over Moab, Edom, Ammon, the Philistines and the Amalekites, but he also experienced defeat because of disobedience toward God. In the final reckoning, his life and kingship were failures, and are on record in Scripture as a warning to us that disobedience always leads to failure and sadness.

The narrative of Saul is recorded in 1 Samuel chs. 9-31. Saul started out well as king because he was well equipped for kingship. To those whom God gives responsibility, He also gives equipment. Thus Saul was equipped physically, intellectually, and most importantly spiritually.

Physically he was described as: “a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he … he was higher than any of the people”, 9. 2. He had the physique: tall and well built, strong and handsome. He stood out in his generation.

Intellectually he was equipped. He had sound common sense, and knew how to handle difficult situations with tact and firmness. This is so clearly seen in his handling of the people who wanted to slay those who were opposed to him, 10. 27; 11. 12-13.

Spiritually he was equipped for he delighted in the Word of God. He was ready to commune with Samuel and listen to the man of God who said: “I may show thee the word of God”, 9. 27. So he gave himself to the discipline of getting to know the Holy Scriptures under the tuition of Samuel. He studied, and what he found out in study he put into practice and God blessed him. For example, he had put into practice the fifth commandment, and honoured his father by going in search of the lost donkeys. As a consequence of this obedience, he met Samuel the seer and was anointed king of Israel, 10. 1.

He was a fine young man especially when we add the following four qualities which he possessed: a sense of humility, an experience of the presence of God in his life, great self-control and an utter reliance upon God.

A great spiritual hallmark, especially in a young man, is humility. Saul in humility said, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?”, 9. 21. He was nothing in his own eyes, and God is able to work with those who attach no importance to themselves. No one can be of service for God if they take themselves too seriously, think they know it all and have no more to learn, or are arrogant and over confident in their own abilities.

Saul was so humble that when the lot fell upon him to be king, he was missing. He was hiding, shying away from the public gaze. So the people enquired of the Lord, and “the Lord answered, Behold, he hath hid himself among the stuff’, 10. 22. Saul saw the responsibility of kingship as awesome and daunting, the position of kingship too great for him to perform.

Saul was humble enough to be usable by God. Are we humble enough to be usable by God, or might God have to break us before he can use us? When we depend upon the Lord and not on ourselves, then we are in the right position of humility. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time”, 1 Pet. 5. 6.

In addition to humility Saul also experienced the presence of God in his life. Samuel said to him, “God is with thee”, 1 Sam. 10. 7. Again we read, “the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them”, 10. 10; “And the Spirit of God came upon Saul”, 11. 6. At the beginning he knew the reality of God’s presence. Sadly, it did not stay that way, “But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul”, 16. 14.

What is our experience today? We need to know the reality of the presence of God — in our daily lives, in our preaching, in our churches. Too often Christianity is superficial, lifeless, tradition-based, with no glory for Christ as a result. We need constantly to reaffirm the Lord’s promise in our lives, “lo, I am with you alway”, Matt. 28. 20, and “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee”, Heb. 13. 5.

Also at the beginning of his career Saul exercised great self-control. We read, “And Saul also went home to Gibeah; and there went with him a band of men, whose hearts God had touched. But the children of Belial said, How shall this man save us? And they despised him, and brought him no presents. But he held his peace”, 1 Sam. 10. 26-27. He acted as if he were deaf. His was not a violent angry reaction. He exercised self-control. However, following his victory over the Ammonites and the deliverance of Jabesh Gilead, “the people said … Who is he that said, Shall Saul reign over us? bring the men, that we may put them to death”, 11. 12. But Saul again exercised self-control, courage and spiritual sense by saying, “There shall not a man be put to death this day: for to day the Lord hath wrought salvation”, v. 13. There was no reaction in anger or revenge. He was self-controlled. Later that self-control was lost when the women praised David’s victory as greater than Saul’s, 18. 6-8. But as a young monarch he was self-controlled.

Finally, he relied upon God. He gave God the credit for the victory over the Ammonites. He saw that their victory was solely due to the goodness and power of God, “the Lord hath wrought”, 11. 13.

Saul started in a most commendable way. However, his life warns us that it is possible to start courageously and strong, yet end up cowardly and weak; to start faithfully and spiritually but to end faithlessly and carnally. Romans 11. 20 reminds us, “Be not high-minded, but fear …”. In other words, Do not be proud: be humble and grateful and careful. Saul is not mentioned in the gallery of faithful saints in Hebrews 11, for he became faithless. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians summarises the warning to us from the life of Saul, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall”, 1 Cor. 10. 12.

Saul fell. His life became a spiritual desert. Yet what went wrong? The answer simply is that sin came in and was allowed to dominate his life, and God was excluded from Saul’s selfish life. His sins were many, and today we need to guard constantly against: impatience, greed, disobedience, hypocrisy and pride.

Firstly, Saul became impatient. Maybe he had become used to people moving quickly at his commands. At Gilgal he waited for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifices before battle with the Philistines. He waited seven whole days; his army was dwindling and there was no sign of Samuel. Finally, he could wait no longer so “he offered the burnt offering”, 1 Sam. 13. 9. Almost immediately Samuel arrived with the message that Saul would establish no dynasty in Israel. “Now thy kingdom shall not continue”, v. 14.

If we genuinely long to walk in fellowship and power with God, we must guard against the sin of impatience. Our prayer needs to be, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins”, Psa. 19. 13. It is so vital that we learn to pray and seek the Lord’s will before we plunge into action. The book of Acts — that great account of the outpouring of God’s Spirit — starts not with activity but with passivity. Those early Christians obeyed the Lord by waiting and praying — there was no sign of impatience. Spiritual blessing is not in the multitude of activities but in prayer-led activities.

The second sin revealed in Saul was greed, 1 Sam. 15. Samuel had emphasized the need to obey, “now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the Lord”, v. 1. The Lord’s words were that all Amalekites and everything about them must be destroyed. But sadly Saul decided to keep the best. “Saul and the people spared … the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fadings, and the lambs, and all that was good … but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly”, v. 9. Saul disobeyed, and destroyed only what he did not want and could not use.

If our love for the Lord is what it should be, we will guard against greed, materialism and putting our own interests and comforts first. We will spare nothing for ourselves in our desires to yield everything up to Him in obedience.

Thirdly, Saul became disobedient to God’s commandments. We can almost sense the Lord’s grief as He says, “he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments”, 15. 11. That grief was reflected in Samuel as he had to tell Saul God’s words. Saul had lost his communion with God, and now failed to be obedient. What Saul saw meant more to him than what he had heard from God. Samuel reminded him that “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams”, 15. 22. The hallmark of a true Christian is obedience to the Lord. Never mind how difficult or how severe the consequences, a Christian must unques-tioningly obey the Lord in any and every situation.

Fourthly, Saul was guilty of hypocrisy. During the day of warfare with the Amalekites, Saul had become a thief. He had stolen what really belonged to God. Samuel was brokenhearted; he did not glory in Saul’s downfall, and he went out to meet Saul who said, “Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord”, v. 13. A blatant lie! He compounds this by saying, “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord”, v. 20. It was all deceit, lies and hypocrisy. It was a front, behind which lay a heart far removed from the will of God. Likewise it is too easy for us to be in the same position, pretending to be what we are not. It is too easy to have a veneer of Christianity only, with no experience in depth of the Lord in our souls.

Finally, we look at the heart of Saul’s sins: his pride. Samuel reminded him, “When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel”, v. 17. Power had corrupted Saul, he had become “puffed up”. Our prayer needs to be, “God keep us small in our own sight”. Surely the Scriptures are full of warnings against pride: “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another”, Rom. 12. 10; “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves”, Phil. 2. 3.

This sin led to jealousy, hatred and the desire and intention to kill David. Pride led to murderous intentions. Chapter after chapter is taken up with Saul’s attempts to track down and kill David.

So ultimately, Saul’s sin, selfishness and pride made him useless for God. What a disappointment to God who had chosen him, equipped him and loved him. God grieved for him. God is grieved by sin because He loves the sinner. In spite of Saul’s failures, God still cared for him and protected him and strove to bring him to repentance and trust. Sadly, it had all gone awry for Saul, and the possibility of z a magnificent reign was lost.

How will it be for us? Miserable spiritual failure like Saul or powerful victor like Paul?, who said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day”, 2 Tim. 4. 7-8. We need constantly to renounce sin, and enter into continued disciplined Bible study and prayer. Christ must be enthroned as Lord of our lives, leading and directing and using us for His service and glory. Thus we will heed the warning from the life of Saul, and will “abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming”, 1 John 2. 28.

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