Saul’s second test concerning the Amalekites has been likened to a ‘final exam’ that would determine his fate once and for all.1 The Task given to Saul was to ‘devote to destruction’ the Amalekites and all they had. ‘Haram’ against Amalek had to be specifically commanded, as it normally only applied to nations living in the land of Canaan, which the Amalekites did not.2 The rules of ‘holy war’ and the severe penalties for deliberately violating those rules (for example, Achan) were well known to the Israelites (Deut 20:17; 7:2-6; Lev 27:29). Though possibly distant relatives of Israel through Esau (Gen 36:12), the Amalekites had come to occupy the position of Israel’s chief arch-enemy. In the days of Saul, they were a continual, aggressive presence on the southern border of Israel.

Saul duly set out and won a comprehensive victory over the Amalekites. But contrary to instructions, he spared their king, Agag, and the best of the sheep and oxen, destroying only the animals which were of little value. Saul tried to convince Samuel (and himself ) that these animals had been saved with only honourable intentions, to be offered as sacrifices. But the underlying motive was far more sordid, as it commonly is—in this case, greed. Samuel strips away the veneer, the people ‘pouncing’ on the plunder being likened to hawks or eagles swooping down hungrily on their prey (1 Sam 15:19). As for Agag, Saul may have been keeping him alive in order to feature him in some sort of victory parade—Saul was feeling flushed with his success. In verse 12, Saul had erected a monument, not to God, but to himself, in nearby Carmel as a permanent commemoration of his triumph over the Amalekites. Quite likely he had persuaded himself to the point where he believed his own words, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (15:13).

Arriving to cast a cloud over the happy scene, Samuel forthrightly delivered God’s denunciation of Saul. There is poetic justice in this chapter in that the people’s king is rejected by God, just as the people had rejected Him from being their king. Samuel
told Saul that God had ‘repented’ or decided to proceed in a different direction regarding the kingship from now on.3 Like Adam and so many others, Saul’s immediate reaction was to distance himself and deflect the blame onto others—“they have brought them”…“the people spared”, despite verse 9 confirming that Saul was very much part of the decision. Even when finally admitting that he had sinned, Saul nonetheless continued to point the finger at others, saying that he feared the people, and listened to their voice. There is further irony in that Saul, who was appointed king in obedience to the voice of the people, should meet his demise through listening to the people.4 Proverbs 29:25 says, “Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety” (NLT). But Saul never did learn this lesson. Despite Samuel’s unwelcome message, Saul was still anxious for Samuel to come back and worship with him. The reason for this soon became clear—he wanted to keep up appearances in front of all the elders of Israel and the people, whom he must have invited to Gilgal to witness the victory celebrations (15:30). Saul’s main concern was not his sin—but his public image.

There are generally two kinds of responses to setbacks in life, and Saul and David provide classic examples of each. Saul chose what might be called ‘the path of pride’. When things in his life were not going well, he did not reflect on where he might have gone wrong and what he might be able to do differently in future to achieve the desired outcome. When criticised, he was not prepared to honestly examine himself, accept responsibility or try to change. Because he would not accept that he was at fault, Saul had to find someone else to blame for his problems. Because he felt that he deserved success, he became bitter and jealous of David’s success, with his envy manifested as malevolence directed towards David. However, people will almost never admit to being motivated by envy, and so Saul justified his pursuit of David with a seemingly righteous motive, accusing David of plotting to overthrow the throne. In order to maintain his self-deception—that he was a good person—Saul always strove to maintain a virtuous image in the eyes of others.

Commentators have noted that, in the record, Saul is portrayed as someone who habitually hides himself.5 At his coronation he is found hiding behind the baggage—humility, maybe— but Saul had already been anointed by Samuel, given signs and received God’s Spirit. He perhaps should have been stepping up to his responsibilities by now, confident that God was with him. Once king, Saul tries to hide behind the certainty of religious rituals of offering sacrifices, oaths of fasting, casting lots, calling for the Ark, and communicating with God through the prophet or priest. Saul prefers to attack the enemy at night (14:36) whereas Jonathan and David attack during the day and deliberately reveal themselves (14:11; 17:40). Saul hides behind other people when he sins, saying that he feared the voice of the people. Saul’s final act of visiting the witch at Endor to enquire of Samuel is carried out under the cover of darkness and in disguise. People prefer darkness because they prefer for their shortcomings not to be publicly exposed; but those who practice truth have no need to fear the light ( John 3:20-21).

David provides an example of the other way of responding to setbacks, the path of humility. As mentioned previously, the foundation of David’s success was his personal relationship with God built through daily reading and prayer. Yet, as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day demonstrate, it is possible to immerse oneself in the study of the law over the course of a lifetime and pray regularly without ever developing a humble attitude. Humility is a choice that must be made, and usually the more difficult choice. David was a man after God’s own heart, not because he never sinned or made mistakes, but because he combined a love of God and His Word with a consistently humble attitude. Even when David suffered through no fault of his own, he did not nurture a sense of bitterness but returned good for evil (24:17) and was to be found mentoring and supporting others who suffered (22:2; 30:24).

David was always ready to shine a light into every corner of his heart, to do the hard work of self-examination and to accept responsibility. He held himself accountable for the death of Abiathar’s family, despite the fact it was Saul who had them killed (22:22). When Abigail urged him to change course with regard to Nabal, David—even when in the heat of anger— was still able to stop and listen and acknowledge the wisdom of her words. When David was unfairly blamed by others, and when he was in utter despair, he strengthened himself in Yahweh (30:6). He did not engage in a power struggle with Saul and took no pleasure in Saul’s demise. When confronted by Nathan with his sin with Bathsheba, David simply said “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). There was no ‘but …’ after his confession, nor did there follow an excuse or an attempt to share the blame with some- one else. He wrote in Psalm 51, “For I am aware of my rebellious acts; I am forever conscious of my sin. Against you—you above all—have I sinned; I have done evil in your sight. So you are just when you confront me, you are right when you condemn me”(v3-4 NET).When he made a mistake the first time he tried to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, David took some time to think about what he should have done differently and tried again the second time, successfully (1 Chron 15:13). After David decided to number Israel’s army, his heart smote him (2 Sam 24:10) and he confessed his guilt, requesting that only he be punished and not the nation (24:17). David’s consciousness of his own imperfection was no doubt one of the things that caused him to have a reputation as a compassionate shepherd leader (Ezek 34:23).

Saul had been given God’s good Spirit and “another heart” (10:6,9) when he was anointed. After he was rejected, the good Spirit left and an evil spirit troubled him (16:14). It may seem unfair that God would send an evil spirit to afflict Saul. But there is a biblical principle that “to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt 13:12 ESV ). What this principle picks up on is that the longer we make the wrong decisions, the more our conscience becomes deadened; the more our heart hardens, and our capacity to make the right decisions decreases. The longer we make the right decisions, the more our moral character is strengthened; the more our heart becomes receptive to the good, and our capacity to make the right decisions increases. The further we travel down the path of pride, the harder it is to admit we have been on the wrong path all along, and to go back and find the right path.6 In effect, Saul was now given over to the mind of the flesh which would be given free rein to run rampant (Rom 1:28) in all its ugliness.

Saul became consumed with jealousy of David—he “eyed him from that day on” (18:9)—as he sensed the love of the people draining from him and transferring to David. Especially threatening for Saul was when he feared even his own family members loved David more than him (18:28; 20:30). As Saul’s pursuit of David wore on over the years, he became increasingly blind to reality and his own position before God. The staggeringly wicked act of slaying Israel’s high priest and the whole priestly community (a contrast to his failure to completely wipe out the Amalekites) was probably driven by envy of David, when he suspected Ahimelech had successfully enquired of God for David, and God no longer answered him by any means (28:6). Yet at the same time, Saul believed that God was on his side in his attempts to capture David (23:7)! Saul had his moments of clarity when he appeared to acknowledge his wrongdoing (26:21), but he seems to know that it is too late at this point for his life to take a different course.

Saul didn’t start out evil. He came from a respected family and began his reign with good intentions. When he was young he was unassuming and well liked, even getting along well with David to start with. David had plenty of cause throughout his life to reflect upon what caused people like Saul to go down the path of evil. He writes in Psalm 36:1 (NIV ), “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked”. What was David’s conclusion about the evil man? “He does not fear God, (v2 NET) for he is too proud to recognise and give up his sin”. Saul is described repeatedly in the record as fearing practically everyone around him—except God. God had warned in Deuteronomy 17 of the danger for kings of their heart being lifted up. Through daily reading and communion with God and a humble spirit, David remained a man after God’s own heart and received great promises. It is not only kings to whom these principles apply—the lives of Saul and David illustrate timeless truths about human nature and the two paths all individuals can choose in life: “For what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8 ESV ).

Saul and David – A Contrast Between Two Kings
SaulDavid
Born in Gibeah – a city noted for wickedness (Jud 19:13-30)Born in Bethlehem – a city noted for godliness (Ruth 2:4)
The people’s choice (1 Sam 8:5)God’s choice (1 Sam 13:14; Psa 89:20)
Cruel (1 Sam 22:11-19)Kind and merciful (2 Sam 9:1-3)
Unforgiving (1 Sam 14:44; 18:8-9)Forgiving (1 Sam 26:8-11; 2 Sam 1:23-25)
Faithless (1 Sam 13:12-13)Faithful (1 Sam 22:14)
When he sought God he never waited for an answer (1 Sam 14:18-19)Constantly seeking God and waiting for His reply (1 Sam 23:2,4; 30:8; Psa 63:1-2)
Fearful (1 Sam 28:20)Courageous in God (1 Sam 30:6; Psa 18:32-36)
Stubborn (1 Sam 14:39; 15:23)Humble (1 Sam 25:32-34)
Had no respect for the Word of God (1 Sam 15:22)Loved the Word of God (Psalm 19:7-11)
When confronted with his error he tries to justify his actions and make excuses for his disobedience (1 Sam 15:15-23)When confronted with his sin he took full responsibility (2 Sam 12:13)
When he confessed his sin he did so insincerely and was rejected by God (1 Sam 15:24-26)When he confessed his sin he was forgiven (2 Sam 12:13)
He was separated from God (1 Sam 28:6)He was at peace with God (Psa 4:8)
Died at the hand of his enemies (1 Sam 31:6)Died in a good old age (1 Chron 29:28)
Saul’s kingship was rejected (1 Sam 15:23)David’s kingship is eternal through his son, the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Sam 7:12-16)

References

  1. Bodner, Keith, 2008, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, pp. 150-151.
  2. Edelman, Diana Vikander, 1991, ‘King Saul in the Historiography of Judah’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 121, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, p. 100.
  3. Bodner, Keith, 2008, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, p. 162.
  4. Edelman, Diana Vikander, 1991, ‘King Saul in the Historiography of Judah’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 121, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, p. 109
  5. Pollen, Robert, 1989, Samuel and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History Part 2 – 1 Samuel, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, p. 138
  6. Fromm, E, 1967, The Heart of Man; Its Genius for Good and Evil.