As we’ve read through 1 Samuel over the last few weeks we’ve followed the tragic tale of King Saul’s life. When we first met him, he was a young man full of promise. In our last encounter, he was a self-defeated wretch. What happened?
When the Bible first introduces him, he was a tall, good-looking young man born into wealth. But he didn’t seem particularly spoiled, arrogant or otherwise problematic. Shortly after Samuel privately anointed him to be king, Saul himself began to prophesy and “God gave him a new heart.” I wish God spent a few chapters detailing that! Saul then went home and kept his mouth shut. When asked about his meeting with Samuel, Saul didn’t boast about the prophecy over him the way Joseph talked about his dreams. He didn’t brag about becoming king. He kept that to himself. What a good start!
When Samuel arrived a week later to publicly anoint him as king, Saul didn’t even show up with the crowd. They had to look around for him, eventually finding him hidden with the equipment. That doesn’t sound like someone eager to rule. So how did he end up becoming such a power-hungry, hateful, selfish murderer? One step at a time.
Step 1: He disobeyed God when it seemed expedient. When their Philistine enemies gathered for battle, the nearby Israelite men cowered in caves, thickets and any other place they could hide. Saul himself wasn’t there. He was still in Gilgal, waiting for Samuel to come offer sacrifices before they went to war. Samuel asked them to wait seven days. So seven days they waited. But like Job’s friends who waited seven days in silence before opening their mouths and sinning, Saul waited seven days before sinning in an effort to entreat God’s favor. Had Saul waited just another hour or two, Samuel would have offered the sacrifices lawfully. Instead Samuel had to pronounce God’s judgment on Saul.
Saul protested, “I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.’ Therefore I felt compelled and offered a burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:12). A supplication is a request made from a state of humility. Had Saul been operating out of humility, his supplication would say, “God please help me though I don’t deserve it!” He would not need to offer sacrifices to make such a request. Instead Saul was saying, “Here’s a sacrifice for you, Lord. Now that I deserve Your help, please rally my troops and defeat my enemies.”
Step 2: Saul foolishly placed a curse over his own troops rather than appeal to God for help. “Cursed is the man who eats any food before I have taken vengeance on my enemies” (1 Samuel 14:24). Fasting is a wonderful way to remind ourselves of our weakness and thus our need for God. But fasting must be done willingly, not by compulsion. And it must be done for the right reason. Not even Saul’s reason was godly. He wasn’t demanding that they fast as an act of humbly seeking God; he was merely wanting to light a fire under his troops to get the job done in a hurry. What job? Saul’s vengeance. He set for himself a goal of getting revenge rather than pleasing God. Vengeance became his idol, and the curse almost cost him his son.
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written,
“Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Romans 12:19
Step 3: He disobeyed a direct order from God. Samuel told Saul that God was going to use him to punish the Amalekites. Do not spare one of them, neither man nor beast. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. But Saul’s heart was again revealed to be focused on himself rather than God. When it was Saul who wanted vengeance, he was passionate about it. But when God wanted vengeance, Saul disobeyed, sparing King Agog and the best of the livestock. When Samuel arrived, Saul crowed about how he had obeyed the commandment of the Lord. Of course he had not, and Samuel called him out; so Saul blamed the people, just as Adam had once blamed Eve. Then he justified his disobedience because it was for a good cause: to sacrifice to the Lord. Again, the end justified the means.
Step 4: Saul cared more about what people thought of him than what God thought.
Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now, please, before the
elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me,
that I may worship the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 15:30).
He wanted honor. A few verses earlier, as he blamed the people for his disobedience, he said, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” There’s no way to know if he was really obeying their voice or if it was his own idea. But we can be sure that he did indeed fear them. He feared them abandoning him. He feared them losing respect for him. He wanted, he needed their honor. Isn’t it interesting that he appealed to Samuel by saying that he needs Samuel to go with him so he could “worship the Lord your God”? Shouldn’t that have been the Lord our God? I don’t know if he was just spinning his pitch like a public relations consultant or if he really didn’t know what it means to worship. But nothing about his words or actions suggest that he understood and desired to sincerely worship.
Step 5: He let jealousy/envy outweigh everything else. Shortly after Samuel told him that God had chosen another man to be king, the women began singing of David as having killed more enemies than Saul. Jealousy and envy took over. He was jealous of his position and didn’t want to lose it. And he was envious of the honor being ascribed to David. So he repeatedly tried to kill his best warrior, his best commander, his most faithful subject, his one source of relief from demonic torment. The madness of jealous envy grew to the point that he threw a spear at his own son, the one he had hoped would be the next king. Jealousy and envy are a murderous pair of thieves. They steal our common sense, our joy, our love and our lives.
Step 6: He resorted to suicide — the murder of one of God’s precious children and in his case even the Lord’s anointed — out of fear. First he appealed to what we now call assisted suicide, death with dignity or mercy killing. He asked his armor bearer to kill him because he was already mortally wounded, and it would be an act of mercy to finish the job before the enemy could torture him. It would only speed up his death by a matter of minutes, perhaps an hour or two, so how bad was it really? It would end his pain and suffering, or as we say today, it would put him out of his misery.
To get a feel for God’s view on this, we need only look to David’s reaction when he got news of Saul’s death. A man claimed to have obeyed the king and finished him off. Did David see it as an act of love, an act of mercy? No, he saw it as murder and had the man put to death on the spot. Saul’s decision to seek his own death was based on fear. The alternative would have been to turn to God in his dying minutes and put his trust in God’s mercy and grace.
I could condemn Saul for these sins and a half dozen others besides them, but in doing so I would be condemning myself. How many times have I allowed fear to overwhelm my decision making? How many times have I relished the praises of men? How many times have I rationalized my sin as a necessary evil for some greater good? How many times have I tried to divert my blame to my circumstances or my associates? How many times have I allowed jealousy or envy to cloud my judgment? How many times have I looked for an easy way out rather than embrace the suffering I am called to or even the suffering I deserve? How many times have I spoken rashly? How many idols have I created out of my own comfort and desires? I dare not judge; I wish only to learn from his example, both the good and the bad.
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God,
but with the flesh the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,
who do not walk according to the flesh,
but according to the Spirit.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.