Samuel’s Big Disappointment
Sometimes when we mentor people, things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. They turn out poorly, as they did with Saul.
The expectation of great potential can be exciting. It certainly is for athletes and professional sports teams, as each new season dawns. Many a manager has left training camp saying to himself, This is a team that could win it all. Several weeks later, however, the bubble of potentiality has burst, and everyone shrugs. Maybe next year.
Biblically, few people have appeared on the scene of Jewish history with more potential than Israel’s first king, Saul; and like many highly touted potential winners, he became a major frustration and abject failure.
No one seems to have been more disappointed by Saul than his mentor, Samuel. Samuel was the last in a long series of judges the Lord had raised up to lead and help defend the Jewish people from their enemies. However, as Samuel aged, he made his sons judges over Israel. While Samuel was well respected and loved, his sons were not. They did not follow his godly ethic and went “after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3).
The tribes of Israel told Samuel, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (v. 5). Samuel disliked their request. He understood the Israelites were God’s people, and God wanted them to be different from the heathen because they belonged to Him.
In truth, the Israelites weren’t much different than some Christians today. So often we find that people who belong to Christ want to be like the world. Like Israel, we look at what the world does, what it values, and what it loves; and we want to fit in, rather than stand out.
But the Jewish people were to stand out. God told them, “Be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Israel was to be different, and believers in Jesus today are to be different, as well. We are commanded, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 Jn. 2:15). The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2).
The Israelites’ request annoyed Samuel, but the Lord told him, “Heed their voice” (1 Sam. 8:9). Ultimately, God chose Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, as Israel’s king.
Samuel probably worked closely with Saul. Today we might say he tried to mentor Saul. Mentoring involves advising, guiding, befriending, and often counseling. The Bible is replete with instruction regarding mentoring or training the next generation. Paul reminded Titus, “Older women [in Christ]…admonish the young women” (Ti. 2:3–4). To Timothy, his son in the faith, he wrote, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
The Hebrew Scriptures encourage parents, “Train up a child” (Prov. 22:6), and Moses instructed Israel to teach God’s words and His commandments—laws, statutes, and judgments—“diligently to your children” (Dt. 6:7). Parents are to mentor their children.
Since Samuel was old and his sons grown, he may have been old enough to have been Saul’s father. He played a major role in implementing God’s selection of Saul and anointing him and was the prophet God used to direct, guide, and minister to Israel’s first king.
Saul began well, and the Lord used him to deliver the people of Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites. But Saul only reigned two years when his great potential faded, much to Samuel’s chagrin.
Then Things Went Wrong
Two events in particular greatly angered and disappointed Samuel, who had been faithful to God from his youth, and led the Lord to reject Saul as king over Israel.
Israel was at war with the Philistines. So Saul and his son Jonathan gathered 3,000 men to do battle (1 Sam. 13:2). The Philistines, however, had 10 times that number: 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, “and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude” (v. 5).
As this massive enemy force gathered, the Israelites saw they were in danger and fled to hide themselves from the huge Philistine army. Saul, as their king and commander, was distressed and needed Samuel to arrive to make the customary sacrifice to the Lord before battle. Saul “waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him” (v. 8).
Samuel was a prophet, but he was also a Levitical priest, qualifying him to make the sacrifice. Saul was unqualified on two counts: (1) He was not a priest, and (2) he was the king. No king was allowed to act as priest. Saul greatly overstepped his authority and ordered that a burnt offering and peace offerings be prepared. Then he offered the sacrifice himself.
When Samuel arrived, he was incensed: “What have you done?” he demanded (v. 11). Saul tried to justify his actions, but Samuel knew there was no justification for direct
disobedience to God. The king was supposed to rule on God’s behalf. Samuel told Saul,
You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you (vv. 13–14).
As a boy, Samuel had seen how God had punished Eli the high priest and his sons who disobeyed God. He knew the importance of obedience and the consequences of disobedience.
The second event involved Amalek. Samuel gave Saul a direct order from the Lord: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have’” (15:2–3). God gave Saul the opportunity to fulfill the promise He had made to Moses: “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex. 17:14).
Saul partially did as he was told. However, he spared Agag, king of Amalek, along with the best of the flocks and oxen, ostensibly to sacrifice the animals to the Lord. Samuel was livid. He gave Saul the bottom line: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). Saul confessed to Samuel, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (v. 24).
Samuel responded, “You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the Lord has rejected you from being king” (v. 26). Then Samuel “hacked Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal” (v. 33).
God wants our obedience today as much as He did in Samuel’s day. Sometimes we fail to obey because of fear, as with Saul. Sometimes we fail because of other issues. But genuine faith in Christ can give us the courage to rise above our human frailties, obey the Lord, and trust Him for the outcome.
God’s rejection of Saul was probably a bitter pill for Samuel to swallow because he “mourned for Saul” a long time (v. 35; 16:1). Samuel did not see Saul again until the king, in desperation, went to a medium at En Dor and asked her to bring Samuel up from the dead.
How sad and disappointed the old prophet must have been in the man he had anointed to lead Israel. Yet God gave Samuel the privilege of anointing another man, one after God’s own heart, who would someday ascend the throne: David, the sweet psalmist of Israel. And through Christ, his Kingdom will last forever.