The story of Saul—of his elevation to the kingship followed by his long, slow demise—occupies some 25 chapters of 1 and 2 Samuel. Few people in the Bible have their life recounted in more detail. It has been observed that the disproportionate amount of space devoted to Saul in Scripture indicates his pivotal role in bridging the transition from the era of the judges to the era of the monarchy1. On a personal level, the relatively detailed account of Saul’s life, including unique insights into his innermost thoughts, may be there to teach something about the nature common to all. We could all be Saul.

Saul is a character who it is difficult to categorise as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. He often seems to try hard to please God, but nothing seems to go his way. Especially early in his kingship, Saul is found showing humility, offering sacrifices, inquiring of God, making vows, fasting and generally appearing to have good intentions. Saul was not a disagreeable person. Samuel seems to have grown fond of Saul, grieving deeply when he was rejected as king (1 Sam 15:11, 16:1). Saul’s final humiliation in death elicits no feeling of triumph in David or in the reader, only sadness. The book of 1 Samuel ends with a sad memory of Saul’s finest days—the men of Jabesh-Gilead loyally returning Saul’s past kindness to them by rescuing his body from the Philistines. Many faithful people in the Bible have both their failures and their successes recounted for the benefit of the reader. Yet, unlike his New Testament namesake, Saul has no turning point; no shining moment of redemption from past mistakes. Instead, Saul spirals further and further downwards.

Some commentators see Saul as a helpless pawn of fate, unwittingly marked out to play the role of anti-hero to David’s hero. Saul is seen as being thrust into the role of king, despite not applying for the job or possessing the necessary qualities, only to then be rejected in favour of a more suitable candidate. According to this view, Saul never had a chance. Yet in the scriptural record Saul is held accountable for his own actions. He is presented as having the ability to choose otherwise from what he did2. Saul was told that the Lord would have established his kingdom forever, had he behaved wisely (1 Sam 13:13). It was only after he had twice “not kept the commandment of the Lord” (13:13) and “rejected the word of the Lord” (15:23) that the spirit of the Lord departed from him.

That God disapproved of Israel’s desire for a king is repeatedly made clear (1 Sam 8:7-9, 10:17-19, 12:12-25). But instead of refusing their request, God tells Samuel to hearken to the people. Saul is then chosen by God to be Israel’s first king (1 Sam 10:24). Why did God, out of all Israel, choose Saul? A clue may lie in the meaning of Saul’s name. Saul means ‘asked’. Saul was the king the people asked for. Hosea 13:11 says, “I gave you a king in my anger”. In the case of Saul, the people were going to be taught a lesson by being given exactly what they asked for. In 1 Samuel 8:22 God says to Samuel “make them a king”—whereas God says of David (16:1 RSV ), “I have provided for myself a king”. Saul was the people’s king; David was Yahweh’s king3.

God chose Saul because He knew that Saul was just the sort of king the people desired. Samuel said to Saul that “all the desire of Israel” was upon him (1 Sam 9:20), though there is no record of the people specifically having Saul in mind. In human societies, preferred leaders tend to be those who are perceived to embody what is defining of the group, or what the group most values. At this time, Israel’s primary considerations were the physical presence, military prowess and social standing of their leader (1 Sam 9:2, 10:23). This was the kind of king who would make them like the other nations they envied. The basis of the covenant in Exodus 19:5-6 was that the nation of Israel was to be a holy or separate nation where Yahweh was king and every citizen was a king-priest. Now Israel had abandoned this ideal and the king who was judged to be prototypical of the group was one who exemplified human strength.

Height and an impressive outward appearance are themes in 1 Samuel, with Saul, Eliab and Goliath all having their notable height mentioned. In Scripture, physical height is often used to infer human pride and arrogance. The word used to describe Saul’s height in 1 Samuel 9:2, which means ‘high, lofty’, is also used in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:3, where it is repeated for emphasis— translated as ‘exceedingly proudly’ (KJV). Hannah’s song anticipates the downfall of the tall or arrogant ones, “for by strength shall no man prevail” (1 Sam 2:9). The opening description of Saul as “higher” than any of the people therefore does not bode well.

As the best of human strength to be found within Israel, Saul stood as emblematic of human kingship, which the people had preferred over divine kingship. Saul was not only the firstborn of Kish, but the ‘firstborn’ of all Israel’s kings. A firstborn son was evidence of his father’s procreative power and therefore signified human strength (Deut 21:17; Gen 49:3). Saul’s fate as ‘fiirstborn’ king echoes that of the many other firstborn sons in Scripture who were replaced by a younger brother— in Saul’s case, by an eighth son. When Saul, the people’s choice as the ideal king, was tested and found wanting, so too the whole institution of human kingship was tested and found wanting.

Our first introduction to Saul in action is likewise telling. Immediately after his notable social standing, height and appearance have been described, Saul is found to be searching for his father’s lost asses (1 Sam 9:3). In Scripture, asses are associated with Messianic kingship (1 King 1:38; Zech 9:9; Matt 21:5). That Saul’s first described action is searching for lost asses is an ominous sign. In contrast, when David first appears in the record, he is out in the pastures carefully watching over his father’s sheep (1 Sam 16:11). None of Jesse’s sheep were lost. The Israelites were looking for the ideal leader for their nation but were looking in the wrong place. Their focus was on external qualities and not on inner qualities (1 Sam 16:7).

Israel at this time was looking for a saviour. In 1 Samuel 11:3 the people, under threat from their enemies, had “no man” to save them. When Saul was anointed king both Samuel and the nation had high hopes for him. When Samuel introduced Saul, he used the significant expression, “Behold the man!” (1 Sam 9:17). However, the Israelites had to learn that “the Lord saves not with sword and spear” (1 Sam 17:47 RSV ). By demanding human kingship as the answer to their problems, the people had rejected the Lord as king. Overtones of Edenic temptation and fall are discernible in the record. The nation of Israel had “dwelled safe”, yet “desired” a king when threatened by Nahash the Ammonite, whose name in Hebrew is the word also translated as ‘serpent’ (1 Sam 12:11-13). The people wanted to be like those they envied (8:20), with their king’s attractive appearance a key factor (10:24). Samuel “hearkened unto [the] voice” of the people and gave them a king (1 Sam 12:1), despite the people’s request being “wickedness” (12:17) and despite warnings of the hardships that would ensue under monarchy (8:10-18). The people acknowledged their sin and were given another chance to go forth and serve the Lord with all their heart (12:20). From this time on, king and people would be joined as husband and wife; their fate shared if either sinned (12:25). It was not to be long before both people and king were found wanting.

(To be continued)

Reference

  1. 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. 27
  2.  Brueggemann, Walter, 1990, ‘First and Second Samuel’, in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, p. 59
  3. Gunn, David M., 1980, ‘The Fate of King Saul: An Interpretation of a Biblical Story’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 14, JSOT Press, Sheffield, p. 126