The life of Saul is one steeped in confusing paradox. At times, Saul appeared humble and good; at others, he seemed conceited and stubborn with an undisguised streak of brutality. Reading Saul’s story one feels uneasiness and tension, the way one might feel on an outing with a friendly psychopath.
Saul was no administrator or military man. He was a simple farmer—he loved raising livestock and ploughing the soil, but he was clearly God’s choice as the first reigning king of Israel.
Even before Saul’s anointing as king, some facts about the man defy explanation. Samuel had served throughout Israel for many years as judge and prophet. Yet, when Saul’s servant mentioned Samuel’s name, Saul had no idea who he was. Saul fell more than once under the influence of God’s Spirit and he prophesied. After Samuel told Saul he was to be king of Israel, Saul told no family members. When the prophet introduced to the crowds their king, Saul had to be rousted from among the baggage, where he was hiding. And, one month later, Saul was not minding kingly duties—he was back ploughing his field, as if nothing had occurred. It is difficult to say whether these actions reflected unassuming humility or an indifferent resistance to taking on the responsibility God had assigned.
It must be admitted from the outset that functioning as the first king of Israel was an absolutely staggering task. First of all, beginning at Saul’s coronation, many Israelis openly despised the farm boy and questioned his leadership. In the face of this internal opposition, Saul had to function as both king and military commander in a loose confederation in which no kingly precedent had ever been set.
It required brutal atrocities by a neighboring people to finally spur an enraged Saul into action. This initiated the lifelong emphasis of Saul’s reign, almost solely one of military conflicts. Once the reticent Saul tasted the sweetness of military success and honor, he flew headlong into battles with Israel’s enemies, who bordered them on all four sides.
The Israelis had no experienced standing army, no proper weapons, inadequate communications, and no system of military training. However, despite these odds, Saul mustered a small army and won several resounding victories in the early days. However, as time passed, a stubborn streak began to emerge in the man. He appeared to be testing God’s limits—that is, he would obey God to a point and simply rationalize away any infraction as insignificant.
Before a battle with the Philistines, Saul became frantic and offered the pre-battle sacrifices instead of waiting for Samuel, as he’d been instructed. When Samuel arrived, Saul rationalized, “Soldiers were deserting me, and you were late, and the Philistines were mustering troops, so I forced myself and offered the sacrifices.”
Then before a battle with the Amalekites, Saul was instructed to totally destroy this very evil enemy, including the people, the king, the livestock, and all plunder. Instead, Saul allowed the king to live and permitted the Israelis to save the best of the livestock and plunder. When angrily confronted by Samuel, Saul excused himself: “I have carried out the command of the Lord. I have destroyed the Amalekites, except their king. I feared the people’s demands and let them keep the best spoil and livestock in order to sacrifice them before the Lord.”
Though Saul built a monument to himself and begged Samuel to honor him before the people, from this point, his reign spiraled slowly, inexorably downhill. Near the end, we see a madman, once known as King Saul, jealously and viciously pursuing David through the wilderness—even murdering God’s high priests because one aided David. We see a beaten, slumped Saul seeking guidance from a wizened psychic. And finally, wounded on the battlefield, a tragic figure plunges his own sword into himself, and dies with his sons on the mountaintop. O, sons of Israel, how far the mighty have fallen!
What can we learn from Saul?
Saul showed flashes of genius and even piety. However, his greatest flaw was the determination to do things his way rather than God’s. He never took to heart the fact that obeying God is better than sacrifice, and stubborn rebellion is akin to idolatry. We need not make the mistakes Saul made; we need not reap the consequences.
Bible Verses about Saul
1 Samuel 9-2 Samuel 1; 1 Chronicles 5:10, 8:33, 9:39, 10:2-13; 11:2; 12:1-29; 13:3; 15:29; 26:28; Psalm (in titles) 18, 52, 54, 57, 59; Isaiah 10:29
What questions does this help to answer?
- Who was Saul in the Bible?
- Why did Saul go bad?
- What happened to Saul?
- Why did David not kill Saul?
- What was the relationship between David and Saul?
Steve Fortosis served for six years as youth minister in several parishes. Meanwhile he was also working toward his masters, then his doctorate in religious education. Through the years he has enjoyed teaching on the college and seminary levels and writing professionally. He has published a number of books including story and prayer compilations, missionary biography, Biblical character biography, devotional lit, children’s lit, and even stories of Bible translation. Presently he resides in Florida with his wife, Debra, where he teaches part-time and writes on a free-lance basis.Steve Fortosis