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Few characters in the Old Testament have caused as much trouble as King Saul—theologically, literarily, and historically. No sooner was he selected as king than he was rejected, for reasons that, to many Bible readers, seem to be trivial. Theologically, the Biblical account of his rise and fall (recounted in 1 Sam. 9–31) has￼caused some to question the justice and benevolence of God, as well as the behavior of His prophet Samuel. Literarily, the account makes little sense in the eyes of many readers. And if it doesn’t work as a coherent story, then it can hardly count as good history. Saul is, indeed, a troubling figure.
The key to grasping this narrative is Saul’s first charge, given by Samuel at his anointing in 1 Samuel 10:1–8.
Saul is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:1–2, where he is described as a prime specimen of manhood, “choice and handsome.” One thing that stands out, however, is the exclusive focus on Saul’s external, physical qualities. David, too, is described in glowing physical terms (16:12), but the author of 1 Samuel also notes that he is talented, brave, well-spoken, wise, and, most significantly, “the Lord was with him.” Thus, from the beginning, the reader may have misgivings about Saul.
The chief symptom of Saul’s spiritual malaise is his unwillingness to obey God, as His word is mediated through Samuel. Saul famously fails to obey on two occasions: In 1 Samuel 13, he does not wait for Samuel to meet him in Gilgal as he has been instructed to do (10:8); and in 1 Samuel 15, he does not fully execute judgment on the Amalekites as instructed (15:3).
These are the better-known instances of Saul’s disobedience, but the first instance (generally overlooked) comes much earlier, at the time of Saul’s anointing in 1 Samuel 10. On that occasion, Samuel predicts three signs that will confirm Saul’s anointing. Then he gives Saul his first charge (10:7–8). As soon as all the signs are fulfilled, Samuel tells Saul, “Do as the occasion demands; for God is with you.” The third sign is to take place in Gibeah of God. Here, as Samuel reminds Saul in 10:5, is a “Philistine garrison.” What else can Samuel have in mind than that Saul should strike this Philistine outpost? Saul’s main task is to “save My people from the hand of the Philistines” (9:16). And so, Samuel’s next instruction to Saul (the second part of his first charge), is to repair to Gilgal to await Samuel, who will come to offer sacrifices and to give Saul further instructions (10:8).
The fulfillment of the third sign (Saul’s prophesying with a band of prophets, vv. 5–6) is described in detail. The notice in verse 9 that “God gave [Saul] another heart” (as well as its anticipation in the words of Samuel in v. 6: “You will … be turned into another man”) does not signify regeneration but simply a temporary change of Saul’s essential character in order that the third sign might be fulfilled. The main point is that, when all the signs have been fulfilled, just when Saul should “do as the occasion demands” (that is, strike the Philistine outpost), he does nothing!
Attacking the outpost would have brought Saul to public attention and shown his willingness and ability to obey God. And it would have resulted in his confirmation as king.
What follows next in the account makes sense against the background of Saul’s initial faltering. Samuel convenes an assembly in Mizpah (10:17–27) and begins addressing the people in tones that sound like those of a typical prophetic judgment speech. God has been very good to you, Samuel tells the people. Therefore, why have you “rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations” and have demanded a king like all the nations (10:19; recall 8:5ff.)? Then, just at the point where, in a judgment speech, the announcement of judgment would be delivered, Samuel begins to cast lots and continues to divide the people until the lot falls on Saul, who is discovered to be “hidden among the equipment” (10:22–23).
The next episode, Saul’s victory over the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11), serves as a kind of substitute demonstration, silences his critics, and puts Saul back on the pathway to the throne (11:14). Saul and all the Israelites hold a great celebration (11:15), but Samuel is not listed among the celebrants. Instead, he begins to issue stern warnings that Saul’s kingship can yet fail (1 Sam. 12). It is apparent that in Samuel’s mind, Saul’s kingship still must pass a test—a test that goes right back to Saul’s first charge in 10:7–8.
In 1 Samuel 13:3, Jonathan, not Saul, attacks the Philistine outpost, thus doing what Saul’s hand should have done earlier. Recognizing that the charge of 10:7 is now fulfilled, albeit by Jonathan, Saul immediately goes down to Gilgal in accordance with 10:8 to await Samuel’s arrival. When Samuel is slow in coming, Saul proceeds to offer pre-battle sacrifices in Samuel’s absence, judging that the military situation precludes further delay. No sooner does Saul begin the sacrifices, however, than Samuel arrives and, after hearing Saul’s excuses, announces that Saul has acted foolishly and that his kingdom will not endure. Saul’s acts of disobedience on the occasion of his first rejection (here in 1 Samuel 13), as well as the second (in 1 Samuel 15), are but symptomatic of his fundamental inability to subordinate himself to God. In short, they are symptomatic of his lack of true faith in God (compare 1 Chron. 10:13).
After his definitive rejection in 1 Samuel 15, Saul is no longer the rightful king in God’s eyes (though he remains on the throne for some years), and God turns His attention to David. The Spirit of the Lord now rests on David (16:13), but it is withdrawn from Saul and replaced by an “distressing spirit from the Lord” (16:14). 1 Samuel 16–31 traces Saul’s emotional and psychological disintegration, a disintegration worsened by his fear of David (1 Sam. 18:29), whom he senses to be God’s choice to replace him as king (1 Sam. 18:8; 20:31). After failing in many attempts to take David’s life, Saul eventually takes his own (1 Sam. 31:4). David, all the while, is providentially, if circuitously, guided toward the throne.
Understanding the Saul narratives in the above manner goes a long way toward resolving the literary and theological issues surrounding him. But one final question remains. If Saul was fundamentally unsuited to be Israel’s king, why did God choose him in the first place? The answer must be sought in God’s concession to the people’s sinful insistence in 1 Samuel 8. As the prophet Hosea would later proclaim: “I will be your King; where is any other, that he may save you in all your cities? And your judges to whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in My anger, and took him away in My wrath” (Hos. 13:10–11).