Where did Saul go wrong? A good starting place is the divine criteria for successful kingship in the law in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Saul’s failure is not immediately obvious from the prohibitions there. Saul was chosen by the Lord and was not a foreigner. He did not multiply horses as mentioned, nor did he cause the people to return to Egypt. Saul did not multiply wives—in fact he only ever had one wife, whereas David had at least eight, plus concubines (1 Chron 3:1-9). Saul did not greatly multiply to himself silver and gold, as far as is known. He did not dabble in the worship of the gods of other nations, unlike many later kings of Israel and Judah.

There remains one aspect of the duties of kings in Deuteronomy, which is the positive instruction of 17:18-20 (ESV):

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”

When a king is remembered as an example of a good king, it is often in reference to this instruction of Deuteronomy 17. David and Josiah are described (2 Kings 22:2; 2 Chron 34:2) as kings who turned not aside to the right hand or the left, clear references to Deuteronomy 17. In 2 Samuel 22:23 the secret to David’s success was that “all his rules were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside” (ESV), another reference to Deuteronomy 17. We are not told whether Saul wrote out his own copy of the law and read it every day, however, there is no indication that he did1 and much circumstantial indication that he did not. Saul dutifully observes the required religious rites, but seems to lack an understanding of what God is like and what He was really looking for. As Saul’s failures mount, he performs outward religious observances with increasing desperation, even to the point of superstition. But there was no personal relationship. This is never more obvious than in 1 Samuel 15:15 where Saul refers to God as “the Lord your (Samuel’s) God” (ESV).

What kings were being warned against in Deuteronomy 17 were the potentially corrupting effects of possessing great power. Not surprisingly, it has been found that the repeated exercise of power over time causes individuals to have a more inflated opinion of self, to act in a more self-serving manner, to see themselves as ‘above the law’, to have less empathy, and to be more likely to see other people as tools to be used for their own ends (the ‘metamorphosis’ model of power).2 A ‘transforming’ influence upon the mind would therefore be required on a regular basis to counteract the morally corrosive effect of power (cp Rom 12:2). Israel’s last leader, Joshua, had been given very similar instructions (Josh 1:8). Reading the law every day would ensure that the leader or king’s heart would not be lifted up above his brothers. Why is this?

Firstly, the command that the king read from the law every day not only subjugated him to God’s law (whereas in other Ancient Near East societies the king made the laws) but also placed him on a par with every citizen of Israel, all of whom had been commanded to do the same (Deut 5:1; 6:6-8; 11:18-19).3 Israel’s king thus had a level of accountability which no other king at the time did. Secondly, Romans 3:19-20 says that “by the law comes the knowledge of sin”. This self-awareness causes ‘every mouth to be stopped’. Understanding the fallibility of the human nature shared by all ought to cause the king’s heart not to be lifted up above others. Finally, and most importantly, regularly listening to God’s voice over time would give the king an intimate understanding of God’s character. The natural temptation for kings was to “boast in their might”, but knowing God would cause them to understand and emulate his attributes of lovingkindness, justice and righteousness (Jer 9:23-24). A king who knew God would uphold the cause of the poor and the needy, rather than compete for status (Jer 22:16).Early in his life, Saul responded modestly when told that all Israel desired him (1 Sam 9:21) and was reticent when about to be publicly named as king (10:22). Samuel said that at this stage Saul was “little in his own eyes” (1 Sam 15:17 ESV) so it does seem that Saul’s pride grew along with his experience of exercising power. Saul did not appear to have any check upon his growing sense of self-importance, which might have been provided by frequent meditation upon God’s law.

Not turning aside to the right hand or the left (as in Deut 17) is linked in Proverbs 4:23-27 with good eyesight, specifically with eyes that look straight on ahead and discern the correct path. Hearing and seeing are major themes which run throughout the book of 1 Samuel. As Deuteronomy 17:18-20 shows, when it comes to developing good spiritual insight and perception there is no substitute for the daily reading of God’s Word, with a humble heart ready to receive instruction. If the nation of Israel was to be led by a king, rather than God being their only king, then it was crucial that the king’s outlook be aligned with God’s. Any testing or finding of fault in the new king was therefore most likely to be in the area of obedience, with little room for error allowed.4

In due course Saul’s obedience was put to the test, the account of which is found in 1 Samuel 13. In the nation of Israel, the word of the prophet was always the highest authority, as he or she received communications directly from God. This was made clear previously with the role of Moses as prophet and recipient of the law being superior to that of Aaron as high priest, who received his instructions from Moses. The institution of monarchy added a new element to Israel’s leadership, but the understanding appears to have been that the prophet, as God’s mouthpiece, was still a higher authority than the king. This is borne out later by the condemnation of Saul by Samuel, and David by Nathan. Whilst the king’s role was to judge and to fight the battles (8:20), the king was still to be subject to the Word of God via the prophet regarding when to go out to battle.

At the beginning of his reign, Samuel had instructed Saul that, in the case of an impending conflict, he should go to Gilgal and wait for seven days until Samuel would come to offer the sacrifices and “show you what you shall do” (10:8 ESV). The word ‘wait’ used signifies much more than simply passing time. The Hebrew word also has the sense of hope or expectation, which is linked to faith and trust (in the LXX the Greek word used is elpis). It “is the solid ground of expectation for the righteous. As such it is directed towards God”.5 It is an expectation of good that will happen in the future; the confidence that things will be well because God is with us.

Unfortunately, Saul failed his first test. As now became evident, Saul had no solid grounding of his own personal relationship with God. As a result, Saul could only see the situation in human terms. There was no spiritually-minded assessment of the situation like Jonathan’s, who said, “there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few” (14:6), or as David, who asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (17:26). Seeing the people scattering, the numbers of Israelites dwindling and the Philistines approaching, Saul decided not to wait for Samuel any longer but to carry out the prophet’s role of inquiring of God himself. Not being a man of faith, Saul could see no other option or possibility. In 13:12 he explains to Samuel, “I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering” (NIV).

The norm for kings at the time is described in Ecclesiastes 8:4: “Surely the king’s authority is absolute; no one can say to him ‘Why are you doing?” (NET).

Normally no one dared to point out a king’s faults, helping to confirm the king’s impression that he was the possessor of unmatched wisdom. Yet Israel’s kings were to be different. Israel’s kings were to be accountable to a higher authority. When Samuel arrives, he says almost exactly these words to Saul, “What have you done?” (1 Sam 13:11 NIV). By going ahead himself with the pre-war sacrifice and supplication (13:12), Saul had usurped the role of God’s prophet.This was a critical mistake for Israel’s first king to make.The lines of authority must not be blurred. For this, Saul was condemned as foolish and disobedient (13:13) and was told that his kingdom would be given to another—a man after God’s own heart. The import of this was that God would be the one to choose Saul’s successor, rather than Saul being able to choose his own successor from among his offspring, as was the usual custom.6 There is no record of Saul’s reaction to this, but he does not appear to take Samuel’s words to heart. There is no record of any soul-searching or acknowledgement of wrongdoing. He is just as spiritually short-sighted in subsequent chapters and he continues to act as though Jonathan is his heir-apparent.

When David is anointed in 16:12, he is described as “ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to”. At first this appears to be describing David’s handsome physical appearance, and it is likely that David was handsome. However, the word translated ‘countenance’ is actually the word ‘eyes’, and the words translated ‘look to’ can also be translated as ‘seeing’ or ‘perceiving’ (Gen 16:13). It is probable that the narrator here is referring more so to David’s character than his appearance. A possible translation would be that David possessed “beauty of vision and good insight”, in other words David was astute in judgment7 (a similar description of Abigail as being “good of insight” is found in 25:3). Given the theme of sight found throughout the first book of Samuel and that in this chapter God’s seeing is contrasted to man’s seeing, it seems that David is God’s choice as king for the reason that, in contrast to Saul, he sees as God sees.

(To be continued)


  1. Bodner, Keith, 2008, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, p. 100.
  2. Keltner, Dacher; Gruenfeld, Deborah H; Anderson, Cameron; Mischel, Walter (editor), 2003, ‘Power, Approach and Inhibition’, Psychological Review, Vol. 110(2), pp. 265-284.
  3. Berman, Joshua A, 2008, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, pp. 62-63.
  4. 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. 65.
  5. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.
  6. Bodner, Keith, 2008, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, p. 126
  7. 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. 117.