The story of Saul is one of the most fascinating and instructive stories in the bible. It’s interesting not only as part of the history of Israel, but as a character study. Saul’s life has so many lessons for us – we can learn a lot about what to do and what not to do as Christians.
Children’s bible story books give the bare basics about Saul. All we learn from them is that he was the king of Israel when David was young; that he gave David his armour when David was about to fight Goliath; that he was Jonathan’s father; and that he tried to kill David. The stories usually only include him as part of the background to the story of David.
But, in fact, the story of Saul has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy:
- Madness and tormented emotions
- And everybody dies in the end
Unless we read the bible’s account of Saul for ourselves, we miss out on a great deal of what will be helpful for us. Paul says that everything in the Old Testament was written for US so that we might have encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4). Saul’s life, in particular, is teaching by illustration and example. We learn from his mistakes. We observe his life and are warned as we see his folly and the tragedy that resulted from it. In short, as we look at Saul, we see what led to the fall of a great man.
Who was Saul?
What sort of a person was Saul? His story is told in the First Book of Samuel chapters 9-31; that’s more than half of that book! And from that book we learn some of his characteristics; qualities that we, as Christians, ought to be striving for – some of them, at least.
- Saul epitomizes ‘tall, dark and handsome’ (1 Sam 9:2)
- obedient to parents – 9:3
- considerate of parents – 9:5
- religious – 9:7
- humble – 9:21
- guided by God – 10:9
- Spirit-filled – 10:10
- patriotic – 11:1-7
- successful and brave – delivered the Israelite people of Jabesh-Gilead from the cruel
- oppression of Ammon – 11:11
- merciful – didn’t kill those who earlier opposed him – 10:27; 11:12-13
- great military leader – defeated all Israel’s enemies – 14:47-48
- leader of the people of God – 15:1-5
If he was a leader in today’s Church he would be thought of very highly, and would likely have a huge congregation and/or television audience. He would be the Christian’s pin-up boy. But Saul’s problem was that although he started off well, he didn’t finish so well (Mk 13:13). He started off as a blazing light but went out with a fizz.
Saul “Obeys” God
What happened that things changed so badly? Well, he was told very specifically by God’s prophet what God wanted him to do. He didn’t have to look at the bible, compare scripture with scripture, and try to sort out which way he should go – he was given a specific, detailed instruction directly from God. “Now go and strike Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3).
It was straightforward really – destroy the whole nation of Amalek. He didn’t even have to worry about the morality of such a command because that was in God’s hands. All he had to do was exactly as he was told. He was even allowed to choose his own time and method.
God wanted the Amalekites exterminated – the people, the animals, the goods, everything – even their memory was to be blotted out. Absolute, complete, utter destruction and obliteration.
But why did God want to do that? Who were the Amalekites that God hated them so much? And how does this fit with God being a God of love? Doesn’t he forgive sinners? For consideration of this and related issues, please refer to my essay on this site entitled “Principles of Holy War”.
So Saul dutifully went out to battle with 210,000 troops and God gave him total victory. They killed every living thing……except the best sheep, the best cattle, the best donkeys, the best camels……and the Amalekite king. In other words, they only destroyed what they thought was worthless. And in so doing, Saul disobeyed God. It changed everything.
As a result, God rejected Saul as king. Despite his earlier good deeds and qualities, Saul was rejected. He had disobeyed God and his rejection was irrevocable: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Sam 15:29). This demonstrates the principle outlined in the prophet Ezekiel chapter 18:1-32. And it is not to be taken lightly. Saul thought he could justify keeping the best back from destruction; after all, wasn’t he going to offer the best of the best to God as a sacrifice? How could God say “No” to that? When questioned by Samuel as to why there were so many animals present, he said “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God” (1 Sam 15:15).
Perhaps Saul, still in the first flush of his great victory, thought he was indispensable to God now; perhaps even that he could cajole God; and that God would be pleased to have all these nice fat animals sacrificed to him. Whatever he thought and however he tried to cover his disobedience with a pious gloss, and then shift the blame to the people, God wasn’t impressed, and he made this clear to Samuel. He said “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments” (1 Sam 15:11).
Thus, when Samuel confronted Saul he said “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 listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam 15:22-23).
Thus began Saul’s slide into sin, sorrow, fear, and infamy, and a brutal and ignominious death.
The Massive Consequences of Saul’s One Sin
One of the great tragedies of sin is that it is very far-reaching and many other people, often innocent, suffer the consequences of another’s sin. The most obvious and greatest example is that of Adam and Eve. Because they chose to disobey God, their one act of rebellion brought death, chaos, selfishness and bondage to sin to all humanity, and ripped the whole of creation away from God (Rom 5:12; 8:20-23).
Saul’s rebellion however, was not on such a grand scale as Adam’s – none is; none could be. Nonetheless he brought tragedy and suffering not only upon himself but on his family, and on the nation. In his obedience to God he delivered Israel from all its enemies (1 Sam 14:47-48); in his disobedience he brought the nation into bondage to its enemies.
- God took Saul’s kingship away from him (1 Sam 13:13-14; 16:1)
- 1 Sam 16:14 – God’s Spirit departed from Saul and an evil spirit from God terrified him (marginal note)
- He fell into further sin by repeatedly trying to murder David
- The whole town of Nob, with all its inhabitants (who were priests), their wives, their children and their livestock, were slaughtered by Saul because the priest Ahimelech unwittingly helped David escape from him (21:1-9; 22:9-23)
- He consulted a medium to communicate with the dead prophet Samuel to seek guidance from him – 28:7-20
- Thus the Lord became Saul’s enemy – 28:16
- Saul died a brutal and humiliating death (31:3-5); his head was severed from his body and fastened in the temple of Dagon (31:8-9; 1 Chron 10:10); and his body nailed to the wall of Beth-Shan, along with the bodies of his sons – 31:10
- Saul’s sons were killed in battle – 28:19. Their deaths were a direct result of Saul’s disobedience. Jonathan was a good man, and not complicit in his father’s sin, but he was still killed
- Saul’s army was destroyed and a vast number killed – 31:6
- Israel was conquered and occupied by an enemy that hated them – 31:7
Saul would have had no idea what he was about to unleash on his family and the nation when he held back the best of the animals captured from the Amalekites. It was only a little thing, it seemed to him, and God wouldn’t mind. But God did mind; God was justifiably angry at Saul for his rebellion which, to God, is as the sin of witchcraft. And all this from one act of disobedience.
Sin always has consequences (Jas 1:14-15). Even though God may have forgiven us, the consequences of our sin can still follow. For example, when King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, lied and murdered to cover up his sin, and later repented, he was truly forgiven by God; but the consequences still followed and they were disastrous, both to David and Bathsheba in the death of the child that was born to them; to David’s son Absalom; to those concubines of David whom Absalom publicly raped; and to the nation which was plunged into civil war. Yes, David was forgiven for his sin, but the consequences of it were enormous.
The Personal Cost to Saul
Saul was a humble and unknown man when God chose him to be king of Israel (1 Sam 9:16; 10:1). To equip him for this great responsibility, God anointed him with his Spirit (1 Sam 10:5-13): “Then the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man…and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them” (10:6, 10). This is comparable to the passage in Numbers 11:16-17; 24-30, where God gave Israel seventy men to assist Moses in leading the people, empowering and equipping them by his Holy Spirit.
However, because of Saul’s sin, God took the kingdom away from him and gave it to another (1 Sam 13: 13-14; 16:1). Even though Saul pleaded for forgiveness, it was denied him: “And Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I beg, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel’” (1 Sam 15:24-26).
What sobering words are these! Saul pleads for pardon and is rejected! And the Spirit whom God had given him to enable him to rule his people “departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him” (1 Sam 16:14); and God became his enemy (1 Sam 28:16).
Did Saul lose his salvation?
Well, I can’t answer that question conclusively; only God knows. However, a surface reading of Saul’s actions and behaviour subsequent to his rejection by God as king would suggest that he wasn’t saved (see also 2 Sam 21:1-14; 1 Chron 10:13-14; 13:3; Matt 7:16, 20). And God’s promise to David that his son (Solomon) would build him (God) a temple seems to confirm it: “I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son; I will not take my merciful love from him, as I took it from him who was before you (i.e. Saul)” (1 Chron 17:11-13). Perhaps we should just leave it there.
But how many people in the Old Testament do we see whose lives were far from godly, yet we have no doubt they were believers. Samson, for example, lived an appalling life characterized by immorality, violence and revenge; yet his name is recorded in Hebrews chapter 11 as a man of faith (Heb 11:32). When Samson was dallying with Delilah, and she was trying to find out the source of his great strength, the narrative tells us “And she said, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’. And he awoke from his sleep, and said, ‘I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free. And he did not know that the LORD had left him” (Judges 16:20).
Matthew Henry comments here: “Many have lost the favourable presence of God and are not aware of it; they have provoked God to withdraw from them but are not sensible of their loss”. I can’t help but think (wishful thinking, I admit) that this was Saul’s situation. After all, he experienced the presence of God in ways that most people never would, and then was told that God had rejected him from being king. Samson’s situation was perhaps more enviable than Saul’s in that he didn’t know that God had left him; whereas Saul was told repeatedly that God had rejected him from being king, and though he sought pardon, it was refused. How devastating must that have been for him?
The feeling of rejection is a powerful emotion and can cause us to react strongly and uncharacteristically. And then to know and see the person who had been chosen to replace him must have been galling to Saul. Saul knew that his family was to be replaced by another, and, as we see both in the Old Testament and in the annals of history, it was common for the new reigning king to murder all the family members of the previous king to eliminate any possible threat to his throne; so perhaps Saul, in trying to kill David, was trying to protect his family. Did he not identify this threat when he said to Jonathan “For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam 20:31). And the narrative does tell us that Saul was afraid of David after he saw that God was with him (1 Sam 18:12, 15, 29).
In trying to kill David, Saul was aggravating his sin by trying to prevent the declared purpose of God, because prior to this Saul had provoked him in offering a sacrifice by his own hand before the battle with the Philistines. Instead of waiting for Samuel who had arranged to meet him before the battle to sacrifice to the Lord, and whose arrival was delayed, Saul took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice as he saw the people slipping away in fear of the overwhelming size of the Philistine army (1 Sam 13:5-6). Because of his sacrilege and disobedience, Saul was told “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you; for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever. But now your kingdom shall not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Sam 13:13-14).
But Saul wasn’t only experiencing normal human emotions of loss, rejection and anguish; he was also being tormented by an evil spirit, and this is enough to make the sanest person irrational and violent. Inconsistently however, possibly uncharacteristically, and perhaps influenced somehow by the evil spirit, he even tried to kill his own son, Jonathan, when Jonathan challenged him as to why he wanted to kill David (1 Sam 20:32-33); this is not the Saul we were introduced to at the beginning of the narrative.
Evidence of Grace
At first sight, there seems to be very few evidences of grace in Saul’s life and we need to look hard to find them; but what we do find is significant. To begin with, we’re told that Saul was born again and filled with the Holy Spirit: “When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs came to pass that day. When they came Gibeah, behold, a band of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them” (1 Sam 10:9-10). Surely, this passage tells us that Saul was a saved man? “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). And is this not almost identical to what happened to Cornelius whom God had called to be the first fruit of the Gentiles in Acts chapters 10 and 11?
Some commentators think it is proof of Saul’s conversion. It may well be such proof but, as much as I’d like to believe that, I’m not so sure. I think it is an Old Testament way of describing Saul’s being equipped to be king. What makes me unsure is that when Saul wanted David to be found and brought to him so he could kill him (1 Sam 19:11, 15) and David escaped; and when after this, Saul was told that David was at Naioth in Ramah, he sent messengers to bring him back, the Holy Spirit came upon the messengers and they prophesied. This happened three times (1 Sam 19:19-21). Then Saul himself went after David and he, too, was stopped by the Holy Spirit and he prophesied all that day and all that night (1 Sam 19:22-24). This was not evidence of salvation because Saul did not relent or repent, and still sought David to kill him.
Nevertheless, Saul still demonstrated evidence of grace. When he was told that God had rejected him from being king, his first words to Samuel were: “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I beg, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD” (1 Sam 15:24-25). Samuel then identified the exact nature of Saul’s sin (“you hast rejected the word of the LORD”) and he reiterated that Saul had been rejected as king. Saul again pleaded with Samuel, saying “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD your God. So Samuel turned back after Saul; and Saul worshiped the LORD” (1 Sam 15:30-31).
Here we are shown Saul’s response, his first reaction, his first desire, when his kingship was taken away. It was to name and confess his sin; to ask for pardon; to ask to be able to worship God, thus acknowledging that God was righteous in his dealing with him. This is the response of a righteous man, a man of grace. He could have challenged Samuel and stood firm as king, not allowing anyone to question or challenge his own actions; he could have ordered that Samuel be put to death for challenging him.
The importance of confessing his sin can be gathered from the book of Joshua when Israel had captured and destroyed Jericho. Achan had kept some items he came across during the battle and he was found out. Joshua confronted him and urged him “My son, give glory to the LORD God of Israel, and render praise to him; and tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me” (Josh 7:19).
Let us compare Saul’s response when rebuked by the prophet for his sin of intruding into the priest’s office, with that of King Uzziah, who was also rebuked by a priest for the same sin. It is written of Uzziah that “And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah did. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper” (2 Chron 26:4-5). Then we’re told “But when he was strong he grew proud to his destruction. For he was false to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense” (2 Chron 26:16), and he was resisted by the priests and rebuked. His immediate response was one of anger; consequently, he was instantly struck with leprosy by God for his sin.
Likewise, there is the account of King Asa, of whom the bible says “And Asa did what was right and good in the eyes of the LORD his God…” (2 Chron 14:2). When he was rebuked by God through the prophet Hanani for seeking military help from the Syrians instead of seeking God first, he “was angry with the seer, and put him in the stocks, in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. And Asa inflicted cruelties upon some of the people at the same time” (2 Chron 16:10).
So in this comparison between Saul, and Uzziah and Asa who were both commended in scripture for their righteousness, Saul comes out very well indeed. His heart was not lifted up with arrogance as were Uzziah’s and Asa’s, but he was concerned over his sin and sought God for pardon.
And it should be pointed out here that God only rejected Saul from being king; nowhere are we told that God rejected Saul himself. How many Old Testament characters do we read about who sinned in ways that amaze us, yet they were still regarded by God. So when we consider whether or not Saul was saved, we ought to look at God who is gracious and who has pardoned our sin, rather than at the murky hearts of sinners and their deeds. God looks at the believer through Christ; therefore he sees no sin in his people but only pure righteousness. And Paul’s statement in Romans is illustrated so well: “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:20-21).
And Saul’s sins certainly abounded; the slaughter of the priests and their families living in the city of Nob because one of them unwittingly helped David escape was by no means insignificant and we can’t brush it aside (1 Sam 21:1-9; 22:9-19). Even God doesn’t brush sin aside; he punishes it to the full extent: “the soul that sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4, 20). So God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die in the place of sinners; every one of our sins was fully punished in Christ; all our sins were heaped upon him and he has paid in full the debt we owe to God. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:8-12).
There is yet a further and most wonderful testimony to the life and achievements of Saul. When David discovered that Saul was dead he grieved over him and sang this dirge. But as the song is in scripture it is inspired by the Holy Spirit; therefore it must be the expression not only of David, but of God himself as to how he saw Saul.
Your glory, O Israel, is slain upon your high places! How are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor upsurging of the deep! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you daintily in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished! (2 Sam 1:19-27).
Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.