Saul was the first of the kings of Israel. The duration of his reign was forty years. The phase of history thus opened is known as the united kingdom period. The succeeding reigns of David and Solomon, each lasting forty years, complete this phase, throughout which the twelve tribes of Israel were united under one king.
What prompted the people’s plea ‘make us a king’? The first twelve chapters of 1 Samuel provide the answer. Failure of the priests, prophet-judge and people are revealed.
Priesthood prostitutes its privileges. Sacrifice was solely for their own convenience and satisfaction of fleshly appetite, 2. 12-17. The courts of God’s house were defiled by shameful practices, 2. 22. Not only were Eli’s eyes dim but God spoke to another. Communion with God was lost and men were caused to abhor the offering, 2. 17; spoke freely of the scandalous behaviour of Eli’s sons, 2. 22-24; and were led to transgress themselves, 2. 24.
Can the prophet arrest the downward trend? As long as Samuel laboured in the word backed by noble example, he was a blessing to the people. However, we detect an error of fleshly anxiety in the light of ‘old age’ which had far-reaching results. Samuel ‘made his sons judges over Israel’, which was the Lord’s prerogative alone, Judges 2.18. His sons proved unfaithful in their man-appointed office, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage. Little wonder that the people desired deliverance from the uncertainty of partial judges, 8. 2-5. If Samuel could ‘make his sons judges’ he could set up a king to suit them quite as easily!
However, failure arising through lack of enjoyment of communion, and a scarcity of faithful teaching cannot be rectified by man’s rule. ‘It is better to trust in die Lord than to put confidence in princes’, Ps. 118. 8-9. It is just here that the people failed. The present rule of God is only certain to faith. The threatened invasion by the Ammonites, representative of the contemptuous, reproachful world without, clinches the The second test to which he is subjected is reviewed in chapter 15. If the emergency could be pleaded as warrant for his actions in chapter 13, the Lord will ensure no such pressure of circumstances now. He is commanded to wipe out the Amalekites, there is not one to be reserved, 15. 3. Yet despite the word of the Lord we find he keeps the best, 15. 9, spares king Agag to grace his triumph, 15. 20, and vaingloriously erects a monument, 15. 12, R.V. He thinks to excuse himself, confident that if the best of Amalek is sacrificed to the Lord, the disobedience might be overlooked, 15. 21. The very best of the flesh, which Amalek so clearly represents, must be judged and not spared. Neither can the flesh be acceptable to God though it be consecrated to the service of God, a lesson the apostle Paul so clearly grasped, Phil. 3. 4-6. Here Saul’s disobedience is fully manifest in acting contrary to God’s command.
In Israel’s first king then we see a form of rule contrary to the mind of God. The Lord is considered as absent and even forgetful, not as concerned for the people’s welfare as the ruler himself. This form of rule sets itself up instead of God and acts according to its own whims, thinking to win God’s approval by its earnest dedication of the best efforts of the flesh in the path of self-will. However, God is not mocked. The foolish acts of the king were rebuked and his kingdom was not to continue. He was to reap what he had sown. Had he rejected the word of the Lord? Then the Lord will reject him, 15. 23, 26. A neighbour ‘better than thou’, 15. 28, would receive the kingdom from God’s hand. As ever, the heavenly Sovereign takes away the first to establish the second. The man after God’s heart, subject to the will of the heavenly king, would be brought in as his successor, 13.13-14. Man and his methods can never bring in perfection and peace. For this we await the Second Man, in whom all His pleasure and purposes centre for His own glory and the blessing of all.
The remainder of 1 Samuel is taken up with the preparation of David, God’s man. Saul, when introduced into the narrative, is completely out of touch with God. He was David’s enemy continually, 18. 29; 19.17, and sought him every day to kill him, 23. 14. He even erroneously considers God had delivered David into his hand, 23. 7 (contrast 23. 14). The phases of his descent are traced sadly. He began well and ended tragically. The man upon whom the Spirit of God came mightily at the beginning inquires of a witch at the end. With the fanaticism of despair he faced the foe, the battle lost before it began, ch. 31. He took his own life on Gilboa and we join with another and say ‘How are the mighty fallen’. What warning lights flash from this rock strewn path from Ramah to Gilboa. ‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’, and leads to God’s judgement. May the Lord impress the solemn lesson and give us grace to obey ‘which is better than sacrifice’.