The development of the kingdom of God that we see in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, for all its dramatic public story of politics, warfare, conquest and defeat, is centered in the mostly hidden spiritual character struggles of the providentially chosen human participants. The spiritual growth or declension of the major players, Saul and David—their drawing closer to God or else rejecting His Word—ultimately determines the course of a nation, and the part they play in it.
How central is gradual development of spiritual character in the lives of men and women to the eventual triumph of the kingdom of God! In one of His kingdom parables, Christ demonstrates the hidden and slow—but sure—progress of God’s true work on earth: “ ‘For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head’ ” (Mark 4:28). What is true in the cornfield is also true in the human soul: It is the law of gradual growth or declension in people’s character. While there are, as we see at large in 1 Samuel, crises and happy or disastrous turning points in one’s earthly pilgrimage, the direction we actually take at the crossroads of life is determined by what has been going on inside us prior to the crisis.
We might say that God works from inside out in accomplishing His purposes among men. Merely human policy tends to work from the outside, for “ ‘man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ ” (1 Sam. 16:7). Jeremiah 31:31–34 (and Heb. 8:8–13) show that the essence of “the new covenant” is the state of a regenerate, Spirit-anointed heart that loves God and neighbor from within the innermost parts and does that which is outwardly righteous, because of gracious inward righteousness. God has sovereignly chosen to advance His cause on earth this way: through the responses of those whose hearts are right with Him, whose eyes are upon Him “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress” (Ps. 123:2).
What a stark contrast the final chapters of 1 Samuel present in this regard between hard-hearted Saul and tender-hearted David! The true state of the heart, as to whether it is focused on God or not, determines all else. This is a lesson that worldly wisdom, as chronicled both in the Scriptural accounts and in the ongoing history of the Christian church, finds offensive and impossible to accept. But the God of the covenant will advance His cause no other way, hidden, slow, and foolish though it may seem to worldly wise men (whether in the church or out of it). But Daniel gives the true dynamic in world history: “The people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Dan. 11:32), whereas, “ ‘those who walk in pride He is able to put down’ ” (Dan. 4:37). This sovereign choice to work from the inside out is, no doubt, an illustration of God’s choosing to use “weak” and “foolish” things to confound the things that humans account mighty, noble, and impressive (1 Cor. 1:25–29).
1 Samuel 26 contrasts poor David’s apparently “foolish wisdom” with mighty Saul’s apparently “wise folly.” David, whom Saul’s army was hounding and persecuting, finally had Saul’s life in his power. But out of holy regard for God’s anointing of Saul as king, David refused to kill him. The world says “foolish” (why bring theology into a war?); God’s Word says “wise” (how can paltry humans prosper against sovereign power?). But after David had treated him with such respect and grace, Saul was obliged to let out his genuine feelings: “ ‘I have sinned.… Indeed I have played the fool and erred exceedingly’ ” (26:21). The tragedy is that although Saul showed wisdom in this confession, he failed to take advantage of the grace it offered him, and persisted in the folly of continuing his rebellion against God, by using his military might (with worldly “wisdom”) to try to snuff out the life of the one whom he knew was truly the Lord’s anointed.
The wisdom and folly exhibited by David and Saul, respectively, were not finally the result of their human intelligence. The way they used their minds, whether successfully or disastrously, turned on their relationship to God.
At a low point, when his temporary home city had been burned and his family taken captive, David showed who he really was, for he “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” and sought His guidance (1 Sam. 30:6–8). He received wisdom because he looked to Zion, the place from which help and strength are sent (Ps. 20:2).
How different it was with Saul, who long since had ceased listening to God’s commands. The time arrived when God would no longer communicate with him (1 Sam. 28:6). In this horrendous spiritual vacuum, Saul sought out a witch for guidance, asking her to call back the deceased Samuel. To her utter shock, God chose to send Samuel from the other realm to utter an irrevocable rebuke to rebellious Saul (1 Sam. 28:11–19).
And so this book closes with Saul judged and destroyed, and David on his way to the throne, as a foreshadowing of the eternal Christ, who reigns forever and ever. Not intelligence, not position, not military might, but the state of their hearts with the living God determined their lives and shaped the nation.