In Proverbs 23:26, we hear the call of an earthly father (reflecting the heavenly Father): “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” A chief blessing of the new covenant is a heart that knows God, with His law written deep within it by the Spirit (cf. Jer. 31:31–34 and Heb. 8:6–13). That is the struggle that goes on in the long history of Israel, which is often spoken of as “God’s son” (cf. Ex. 4:22–23 and Hos. 11:1, quoted in Matt. 2:15).
God has made us to know and love Him from within the deepest part of our personal beings—our hearts. All the blessings of eternal life are found within that heart knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ, whom He sent (John 17:3). Nothing less will do in a saving relationship to God than the giving of the heart to Him.
While only one in the long annals of human history ever totally gave His heart to the heavenly Father and could say, “‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me’” (John 4:34), it is clear that He is the summation of the ancient story of Israel, in which God is calling out the total heart of His covenant people. Everything else is preparatory for that heart-to-heart knowledge that is the salvation of needy mankind and the glory of a gracious God.
How precisely the transition from the prophet Samuel to the first king of Israel, Saul, in preparation for the true king, David, reflects this divine wooing of the heart of a people! Here we see how costly it is to respond to the divine love on a merely superficial level. When that kind of response is given, we shall see that God will shake down an entire nation, if necessary, to have the heart of His people.
Samuel solemnly testified that the Israelites’ desire for a king like the other nations indicated that their hearts were turning from God (cf. 1 Sam. 8:7). But the wise and patient providence of God allowed the people to have an earthly king, even though granting them their desire would send “leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:15). But sometimes God sends us a temporary leanness of soul, as He accedes to our worldly demands, in order to pick us up from our place of defeat, where He then can grant us a true fatness of soul.
Superficially using God for our own worldly ends will neither satisfy God nor secure the human soul. That is what godly old Samuel meant by calling upon the Lord to perform a miracle of judgment before the people, who insisted on having a visible king rather than an invisible one. Thus, during the time of year when the Holy Land is always dry, Samuel prayed the Lord to send tremendous rain and thunder to destroy much of the wheat harvest (1 Sam. 12:16–18). When God did precisely what Samuel had prayed, it was a costly sign (in terms of agricultural loss) of how very real and powerful was that King who no longer seemed sufficient to fight the wars of His people.
This miracle was meant to cause the people to doubt their insistence on running their affairs “like the other nations.” Common sense says: “It never rains in the dry season. The wheat is ready for harvest. All is well.” Samuel is showing them a most valuable lesson: Unless God is first in our hearts, no matter how lovely the situation appears, it will all go wrong.
Perhaps that is why God had Samuel anoint such an unusually handsome, tall, and impressive young man as king (1 Sam. 10:23). They would learn in due time that to judge primarily by the outward appearance (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7) leads to disaster. But for a while, like the wheat harvest before the storm suddenly hit, everything about young King Saul seemed just right, on the surface at least. He seemed genuinely humble (cf. 1 Sam. 9:21; 10:20–22), forgiving of insult (10:27; 11:12–13), and courageous in battle (ch. 11).
But God wants the heart, and by the latter part of chapter 13 we shall see that God never had the true heart of Saul. When our hearts are not really given to God, then our service to our fellow humans cannot achieve the beauty of its proper purpose. Yet Saul’s heart, in some real sense, certainly had been “touched by God” (1 Sam. 10:26). Indeed, Saul, along with a company of prophets, had undergone an ecstatic experience of the Holy Spirit in which, for a time, he was turned into “another man” (1 Sam. 10:9–13). But as one of the old seventeenth-century English Puritans remarked, “Saul was given another heart, but not a new one.” His experience of the touch of spiritual power must have been like that of those who are mentioned in Hebrews 6:4–8. Their intellects and emotions were stirred by the Gospel, but such stirrings never went deep enough to constitute the true regeneration of a new heart. We will find later, after chapter 13, that like the superficial professing believers of Hebrews 6, Saul also finally goes apostate and loses everything.
And yet, humanly speaking, it could have been different for Saul, had he, from the beginning of his reign, cast himself, body, soul, and spirit, onto the words of Samuel: ‘“Do not fear. You have done all this wickedness; yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside; for then you would go after empty things which cannot profit or deliver, for they are nothing’” (1 Sam. 12:20–21). For all his emotional excitement in the spiritual realm, Saul evidently kept his heart for himself, and said “no” to the one who calls, “‘My son, give me your heart.’”