The rise and fall of King Saul – part 1 (1 Sam 9-15)

Having spent three days looking at 1 Samuel 8 (on how Israel wanted a king like the nations around them), we’ll speed up a bit as we see how having a king like the nations around played out in the life of Saul. You can read all of 1 Sam 9-12 if you like, or follow my edited highlights, below.

In chapter 9 we’re introduced to a man named Kish, who had a son, who was Israel’s future king. He just didn’t know it yet:

9:2 He had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.

And what do we find this future king doing? Leading an army? Rescuing a maiden in distress? Opening the new wing of a hospital? No, he’s out looking for the family donkeys. Not a particularly regal start. And what’s more, he doesn’t seem all that good at it. He can’t find them anywhere. He’s about to call it a day when his servant convinces him to go to a place called Zuph, to ask some prophet who lived there. We then find out that the prophet is none other than Samuel himself.

When they get to Zuph, they’re in luck. Samuel’s about to arrive in the town to make a sacrifice. They ask one of the locals where to find him, and they tell them:

9:13 “As soon as you enter the town, you will find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people will not begin eating until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward, those who are invited will eat. Go up now; you should find him about this time.”

(Now although it seems incidental to the story at the moment, pay attention to this bit:  the fact that the people can’t sacrifice until an appropriate ‘man of God’ arrives to bless it and do it properly.) Anyway, Saul meets Samuel, who quickly puts the lost donkeys into perspective.

9:19-20 “I am the seer,” Samuel replied. “Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart. As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found. And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and all your father’s family?”

This is a roundabout way of saying – donkeys, schmonkeys! You’re going to be Israel’s first king. And this kind of freaks Saul out. What – me? I’m a nobody. From the smallest tribe. The smallest clan. I hunt donkeys, for goodness sake… Saul’s certainly a reluctant leader at first, which we’ll see shortly.

The next day, Saul goes with Samuel to the high place; there, Samuel tells him straight out – God says you’re going to be king.

10:1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the LORD anointed you leader over his inheritance?

He then gives him instructions to go to a town called Gibeah. There he’ll run into a band of prophets (complete with musical entourage).

10:5-7 “As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.”

Now here’s the key instruction. Don’t miss this or you won’t understand what happens later.

10:8 “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”

We’ve seen that twice now, haven’t we? The old ‘don’t sacrifice the burnt offering before the priest turns up’ routine. Remember that for later. So Saul goes back home. Saul’s uncle asks where he’s been:

‘looking for the donkeys; oh, and I ran into Samuel, by the way.’

‘And what did Samuel say to you?’

‘Oh, not much. Just that the donkeys have been found.’

Clearly, Saul isn’t going to take over the kingship without a bit of a push. So Samuel then summons all Israel to Mizpah to formally choose the king. This is done by drawing lots. (A strange way to choose a king, but then it probably wouldn’t be any worse than our political system.)

Firstly they divide by tribe, and the lot falls to the tribe of Benjamin; then the clan of Matri; then the family of Kish; and finally to Saul himself. But Saul isn’t there; after a brief search, they discover him hiding among the baggage.

I’ve always wondered how that scene played out. I think it helps to imagine Saul as being English: ‘Sorry about that chaps; was looking for my shaving kit, and next thing you know I’ve fallen in britches over bonnet and, well, jolly good thing you found me and all, now what’s this hoo-hah about appointing a king…?’

So anyway, Samuel gives the regulations for kingship & everyone heads off. Not before a few whiners start to complain about the election result. I think these days we call them the Palmer United Party (or “The Supreme Court” for American readers). But the Bible calls them troublemakers:

10:27 But some troublemakers said, “How can this fellow save us?” They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent.

After all, what’s Samuel up to? Appointing a king who doesn’t even know the location of his own ass?

But moving to chapter 11 we find that Saul is soon given a chance to silence the critics, by his first significant act as king. Not by delivering tax reform or universal health care, but by going to war. Ah, the good old days when your public approval rating was tied to the amount of genocide you’d been able to accomplish in your first term.

Saul hears reports that the city of Jabesh Gilead has been besieged by the Ammonites. Unlike today, his intelligence proved to be accurate. Apparently, the people of Jabesh Gilead had even offered to surrender, but the leader of the Ammonites proposed some pretty harsh terms. He’d eyeballed them across the negotiating table, and was planning to do so in a more literal fashion shortly:

11:2 But Nahash the Ammonite replied, “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.”

This guy sure knows how to make a negotiated settlement – how to produce a win-wink situation for everybody. But when Saul hears about it, he’s not impressed.

11:6-7 When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger. He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, “This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.” Then the terror of the LORD fell on the people, and they turned out as one man. 

Saul then leads Israel to a crushing victory. Jabesh Gilead is saved & the Ammonites are utterly defeated. Everyone rallies around their new king. A king who has gained a whole load of one-eyed supporters… in the metaphorical sense only, much to their great relief.

11:14-15 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there reaffirm the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal and confirmed Saul as king in the presence of the LORD. There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the LORD, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration.

Samuel then gets up and gives his farewell speech. He’s about to hand over the reins of power to Saul. But in doing so he reminds Israel of their foolishness in asking for human king.

Specifically, he reminds them of how God had delivered them in the past many times, without needing a king: simply by raising up leaders like Jerub-Baal, Barak, Jephthah, Samson & Samuel himself.

12:12-15 But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’—even though the LORD your God was your king. Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you asked for; see, the LORD has set a king over you. If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God—good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.

Samuel gets God to add some special effects – a sudden thunderstorm – to ram home the point. At this point the people realise they’ve been foolish, and freak out:

12:19 The people all said to Samuel, “Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.”

Finally, they get it. When it’s too late and they’ve now been given the king the asked for. When they now have to live with the consequences. Have they blown it? Do they still get to be the people of God? But then Samuel says something quite remarkable:

12:20,22 “Do not be afraid,” Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart… For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.”

Let’s pause here for a minute and reflect. Despite all that God has done for them, Israel has rebelled against him time & time again. And now, they’ve messed up big: rejecting God as king; asking for a human king instead. And all the warnings God gave them about human kingship – they’re going to have to live with the consequences of their choice for centuries.

And yet, in the midst of it all, God’s still gracious. He doesn’t spare them from all the consequences. But he can still work with them. They can still be his people. God can still work in spite of humanity’s mistakes; despite their sin. The ultimate example of that is the cross – where God worked ultimate good from humanity’s evil actions.

Just because you’ve messed up in the past; because you’ve sinned in the past – don’t lose hope. God is still gracious. He might not spare us from all the consequences of our actions in this life. But he can still work with us. We can still be his people. He can still carry out his purposes in our lives. There is still hope, despite our sin.

So what do Saul and Israel do? Stay tuned for tomorrow…

To think about

What consequences have you experienced as a result of sin – yours, or someone else’s?

How have you seen God work in spite of our sin and failure?

One thought on “The rise and fall of King Saul – part 1 (1 Sam 9-15)

  1. God did not only work despite their sin. He even worked through their sin. Ultimately the messiah would come as the king of Israel. And when I look at my own life, areas where I have messed up, sometimes God has worked, not only in spite of my sinfulness, but even used that very sinfulness to create something beautiful. I’m calling it manure. That ugly smelly stuff that looks as though it should be buried or flushed is actually the very thing that God uses as fertiliser to grow his most wonderful garden in our lives.

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