Against all odds, a man of humble origin, little experience, and slender qualifications is thrust into the highest office in the land. Circumstances afford him an unlikely but happy opportunity to leave a noble mark on history. But tragedy ensues. Deep character flaws, consuming self-absorption, evil choices, and deliberate rejection of godly counsel turn hope into disappointment. The nation is left frustrated and dishonored, its security compromised and its spirit broken.
Such a sorry drama may sound like familiar news today, but it took place more than 3,000 years ago in the life of a young Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin.
Saul, son of Kish, was the first king of Israel. His reign of forty years is recorded in 1 Samuel and can be traced under three divisions: success, sedition, and struggle.
Years of Success
Saul is Announced, Anointed, and Accepted (1 Sam. 9:12)
Saul was perhaps the most unlikely candidate for king in all the land. By his own confession, he was “a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel”; and his family was “the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (9:21). But Saul was as handsome as any man in Israel, and “from his shoulders and upward he was taller than any of the people” (9:2). The Israelites wanted a king, a man they could proudly follow into battle (8:20) as other nations did their kings. And God sometimes gives men their requests but sends leanness into their souls (Ps. 106:15).
First Samuel 8 concludes with a spirit of breathless anticipation hanging in the air throughout Israel. The elders of the nation had demanded Samuel give them a king. After consulting with King Yahweh (8:6–9) and warning the elders concerning the dangers of kings (8:10–18), Samuel, a judge, prophet, and priest, reluctantly acquiesced. When he sent the elders back to their own cities (8:22), they carried the message that Israel soon would have a king.
The account of Saul begins in chapter 9. As he wandered into the village of Ramah in pursuit of a lost herd of donkeys, Samuel confronted him with the incredible message that he was the one for whom all Israel longed (9:20) and told him that Yahweh had chosen him to sit on a throne over the nation (10:1).
Because of intertribal rivalry and political tension, the process by which Saul actually became king was rather extensive. First Samuel privately anointed him (9:27—10:1), then he gave him a succession of signs to confirm the truth of Samuel’s words (10:2–13). Consequently, Saul received a remarkable ministry of the Holy Spirit, which, if appropriated, was designed to make the timid and inept young man a mighty warrior and able monarch (10:6, 9–13; cf. Num. 11:17; Dt. 34:9; Jud. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 14:6, 19; 1 Sam. 11:6; 16:13–15; Ps. 51:11).
Later Samuel convened the nation at Mizpah, and Yahweh publicly identified young Saul as king through a sacred lot (10:17–25; Prov. 16:33). Some Israelites initially refused to accept this Benjamite nobody (10:27). But when—as a result of the Spirit’s enabling—Saul boldly and effectively delivered an Israelite city from the Ammonites (11:1–11), the entire nation enthusiastically acknowledged him as king (11:12–15).
In an important prophetic address after that victory, Samuel formally surrendered to King Saul the civil rule of the nation (12:1–13). Yet he reminded the people that Yahweh was still the ultimate Monarch of Israel and that the twofold promise of blessing for obedience and punishment for disobedience was still operative for God’s covenant people (12:14–19; cf. Dt. 11:26–28).
Years of Sendition
Saul is Rebellious, Rebuked, and Rejected (Sam. 13:15)
Even though Saul was king, he was to remember that he served King Yahweh. The narrative of 1 Samuel 13—15 makes the case that, on two occasions, Saul rebelled against that reality.
After he was fully established in his rule over Israel (13:1), Saul became engaged in a great struggle with Israel’s neighbors and perpetual foes, the Philistines. He had every reason to be discouraged. The Philistine army was “as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude” (13:5), and Saul’s army was trembling in fright and diminishing in number (13:6–7, 15).
The king knew that the priestly office was not his, and Samuel had told him he would come to Gilgal to beseech Yahweh’s direction for the ensuing battle. But Samuel delayed his coming, so Saul violated the Law and sacrificed a burnt offering (13:8–10). Though he tried to cover his sin with excuses, the prophet Samuel pronounced Saul’s presumption indefensible. Furthermore, he announced that Saul’s dynasty would not continue. “The LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and . . . commanded him to be captain over his people” (13:14). Saul’s courageous son Jonathan trusted Yahweh for a victory (14:6), and Israel won the battle (14:1–46). However, Saul had rebelled against the rule of Yahweh and had only hardened in his spirit of sedition when God’s prophet confronted him.
The second act of rebellion is recorded in 1 Samuel 15. Centuries earlier, the Amalekites had troubled the Israelites as God’s people made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land (Dt. 25:17–19). Now God revealed that the time had come to visit His promised retribution on that marauding tribe (15:1–3). The land of the Amale kites was placed under a ban (15:3); no spoil was to be taken. But Saul, motivated by self-aggrandizement, spared Agag, king of the Amalekites, and took some of the choicest spoil (15:8–9). Again Saul was ready with excuses when confronted by Samuel (15:14–21). But when they proved ineffectual, he quickly feigned repentance (15:24–27).
The Lord’s response to this second covenantal affront was swift and severe. Samuel reminded Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (15:22), and announced, “The LORD hath torn the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine, who is better than thou” (15:28).
Years of Struggle
Saul is Suspicious, Savage, and Suicidal (1 Sam. 16:31).
Here the narrative of 1 Samuel begins to focus on a young man who first came to the king’s notice in a remarkable victory over a Philistine champion named Goliath. After that triumph, David rose to ever greater prestige and authority in the court (18:12–16). When the monarch heard his subjects singing of David’s exploits (18:7–8), he began to suspect that David must be the “neighbor” whom Yahweh had selected to displace him on the throne. Therefore, “Saul watched enviously David, from that day and onward” (18:9).
Thus commenced several years of unrelenting and treacherous pursuit of David by a desperate and rebellious King Saul (1 Sam. 18—30). Again and again, David professed and proved his innocence (1 Sam. 24; 26; cf. Ps. 18; 54; 57). But Saul realized that David was God’s choice to replace him as king and was determined to kill the young man in order to frustrate the divine purpose. Indeed, murdering David became Saul’s savage obsession. It consumed him to the neglect of family and duty.
When Saul realized that his noble and beloved son, Jonathan, had taken David’s side, he even tried to kill Jonathan in a fit of rage (20:30–33). Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies began to encroach on the land again. Indeed, had David not formed a militia of “mighty men” and patrolled the borders (27:8–12), Israel might have been overrun entirely during the days of Saul’s preoccupation with murdering David.
That enervating and futile struggle to destroy David led to a final struggle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 28—30). Deserted by God (28:6) and horrified by a postmortem message from Samuel (28:7–25), Saul went to war against the Philistines in his own strength. By the end of that day, the once mighty king had fallen on his own sword (31:3–6); the covenant nation had fled in terror before the uncircumcised Philistines (31:7); and the victorious enemies had stripped the armor of the dead Israelite monarch, displayed it in their idol temples, and hung Saul’s body in contempt on the walls of Beth-shan (31:8-10). How appropriate was David’s lament on hearing of the ignominious death of the man who had started out his mentor but become his tormentor:
Thy glory, O Israel, is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen! Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, . . . How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! (2 Sam. 1:19, 24–25).
King Saul is a tragic figure. He was given a gracious gift and a rare opportunity to serve the Lord and his nation. But he rebelled against the God and King who had chosen and equipped him, and thus his reign was a disaster and his life a tragedy. For all of that, he alone was accountable.
Nevertheless, none of the purposes of King Yahweh were frustrated or jeopardized. The focus and apex of Old Testament history is King David. The reign of that youngest son of Jesse is the golden age of Israel’s history, and the covenant Yahweh made with David (2 Sam. 7) is an Everest of prophetic truth in the progress of revelation moving toward Jesus the Christ. But the people of Israel needed to be prepared for King David. This fact is manifested in the 300 years of the judges—a time when every man did that which was right in his own eyes because “there was no king in Israel” (Jud. 17:6).
But if the 300 years before Saul were designed to prepare the way for David and thus for Christ, so were the forty years of Saul’s reign. Indeed, just as the period of the judges was God’s way of making the Israelites hungry for a king, so the reign of Saul was His way of making them hungry for a king of God’s choosing. Thus the God-breathed words of the apostle Paul in his sermon in Antioch:
After that he gave unto them judges . . . until Samuel, the prophet. And afterward they desired a king; and God gave unto them Saul, the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, by the space of forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave testimony, and said, I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, who shall fulfill all my will. Of this man’s seed hath God, according to his promise, raised unto Israel a Savior, Jesus (Acts 13:20–23).