Saul the Benjaminite was from a family of wealth and was handsome (1 Sam. 9:1–2), so he looked the part of the king. But aside from these qualities, there was little to indicate that he should be the ruler of Israel. He was, after all, from the tribe of Benjamin, not from Judah, Levi, or Ephraim—tribes that had been given leadership roles or that had produced significant national leaders for Israel such as Moses, Joshua, and Samuel (Gen. 49:8–12; Ex. 2:1–9; Num. 13:8, 16; Judg. 1:1–2). In fact, Saul himself clearly was not expecting to be made king, for he did not understand why Samuel gave him such honor after he met the prophet (1 Sam. 9:15–27).
But after feasting with Samuel and his guests, Saul was anointed by the Lord “to be prince over his people Israel” (10:1). God anointed Saul through the ministry of Samuel, and we can discern at least a twofold significance to this use of oil to mark out Saul as the king. First, before the institution of the monarchy, only the priests were anointed with oil (Ex. 29:1–9), signifying their dedication to God for a special task. By anointing the kings of Israel, the Lord showed that He established the monarchy. Israel asked for a king with the wrong motives, but the monarchy was ultimately God’s gift to His people.
Second, anointing with oil in the Old Testament frequently signified empowerment by the Spirit of God (Isa. 61:1). The Holy Spirit was to equip the kings of Israel; they were not to rest in their own power or wisdom. Israel wanted a king after the model of the other nations, and while Saul in many ways would turn out to be such a king, the Lord’s intent for the Israelite monarchy was for the king to represent God and to do the will of God in humble reliance on the Spirit of God. This was to be a kingship of restricted authority, a kingship with a reign circumscribed by the law of God (see Deut. 17:14–20) and not one in which the king could do whatever he wanted. After all, the king was still subject to the revelation of God given through His prophet, for Saul had to follow the instructions of Samuel (1 Sam. 10:8). Jesus, of course, is the only king to follow this model perfectly, for He did only what He saw God His Father doing and spoke only the words that God His Father gave Him to speak (John 5:19; 14:10).
To prove to Saul that God had chosen him as king, Samuel told the newly anointed ruler to look for several specific signs, all of which confirmed Samuel’s anointing of Saul (1 Sam. 10:1–13). But Saul remained reluctant to reveal his new office to Israel (vv. 14–16).