In the Isle of Lewis, off the western coast of Scotland, farmers and crofters used to speak of a certain type of haystack as a “Pharisee.” A thin layer of fodder was spread all around a frame in order to dry. But the interior of the outwardly impressive haystack was empty. Thus the name—it looked good on the outside but was inwardly empty.
Chapters 13 to 16 of 1 Samuel show this same emptiness to have been true of Saul. He was physically handsome and able, and for a time was brimming with a certain kind of religious excitement, but as the years of his kingship sadly demonstrated, he was spiritually empty, “lacking the root of the matter.”
What Jesus said to the angry Pharisees reflects directly what the prophet Samuel said to King Saul, who tried to excuse his disobedience to God’s command to him by a supposed zeal for religious sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:1–15). After defeating the Amalekites, Saul disobediently kept back part of what should have been judicially slaughtered. When confronted for failing to carry out God’s command, Saul excused himself by the religious purposes to which he might be able to devote his unrighteous gain (1 Sam. 15:15). Samuel responded: “ ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams’ ” (1 Sam. 15:22).
Similarly, Christ said to the Pharisees, who were angry with Him for reaching out to needy sinners (Matt. 9:9–13) and for letting His disciples pluck some grain out of the field when they were hungry on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–8): “ ‘But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” ’ ” No amount of even proper ceremonial observance will do the slightest good if at the same time one’s true heart is turned in on self rather than resting in the grace of God. Inward spiritual emptiness leads to outward disobedience to the real intents of God’s law. And spiritual emptiness leads to utter disaster for those who deceive themselves by thinking that they can handle God by selectively observing such religious rites as suits their fancies.
That is why Samuel uttered such a stiff condemnation from the Lord to Saul in words that soon proved tragically prophetic: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23). Saul soon became demon-possessed to the point of being mentally unhinged, and ended his life by trafficking with a witch. It seems as though the human heart cannot stand an empty void.
Saul had once felt some of the Spirit’s higher urgings, but apparently never yielded his heart to the Lord, never sought God for His own sake, and never was taken through genuine regeneration. Thus, the Spirit’s strivings with him one day ceased. He could not stand the void, and in came evil spirits as the divine judgment for safeguarding his own heart rather than seeking the grace of yielding it to the Lord. That had been Saul’s problem for a long time: disobeying God’s clear commands in order to suit his own goals. That is what he did when, instead of waiting for Samuel to return, he obtruded himself into the prophet’s office and offered a sacrifice. That act of disobedience cost his family the succession to the throne of Israel (1 Samuel 13:14), and his later rebellion (1 Sam. 15:26) cost him the throne itself.
An empty heart finally empties and perverts the outward accomplishments of one’s life. And an empty heart makes one harsh toward others (especially to those who are real with God), as were the later Pharisees to publicans, sinners, and to Christ Himself.
The spiritual emptiness of heart and final apostasy of King Saul, though it brought the nation he headed into defeat before the pagan Philistine enemy, did not thwart the eternal purpose of God for His covenant people. Our covenant God always has the initiative. Even in the worst times of the most widespread spiritual declension in “church and state,” God is secretly and patiently, but mightily, working to advance His ultimately victorious cause. Precisely when the leadership of a once godly nation has been taken over by Spirit-less people of empty hearts and harsh attitudes toward those who do love God, the Lord is using their very rebellion to train those whom He will regenerate, making them “men after His own heart.” The Lord will lead His people from defeat to greater heights as He replaces self-deceived religious externalists (whether Saul or the Pharisees) with people whose hearts are filled with grace so that they desire to please Him and to bless His people.
It would later be seen that God used the demon oppression and bouts of insanity of Saul to bring young David to the royal court (as a harpist to relieve the king’s depression by his sweet playing) so that he would become known there as a divine preparation for his future elevation by God to the throne of Israel. In the same way, the Lord would use the wicked persecution of David by Saul as a strange tool to shape him into a strong, faithful, and mighty commander of the Lord’s armies, when Saul was at last laid aside. Through it all, God’s kingdom advances through the leadership of folk whose hearts are full of God and whose paths are providentially prepared by Him.