Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lessons in the Life of King Saul

I WISH I COULD TELL YOU THAT THIS KING lived a fairy tale life and it was happily ever after for him in the end. But it was not. He was groomed by God to be the Chosen Nation's first king. Today, however, many scholars try to blot out his name as the Nation's first and award it instead to his successor, David son of Jesse. From the heights of God's favor, King Saul slid into obscurity and a gruesome end. In reading of his last days, one could not help but and ask, "Why, God?" when Saul pleaded for the wisdom and His holy presence when he was faced by the massive Philistine army poised to attack his land. What went wrong?

I. The Torment of Fear

We have seen it in the movies, heard it in stories, read about it in books, but never have we thought it take place in the Bible: an actual ghost haunting. And it happened to the first king of ancient Israel, King Saul.

In 1 Samuel 16:14, it says that, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” With a little word study, the Hebrew word ra was used for the word “evil.” The connotation of ra, according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, covers attributes of harm, affliction, hurt, misery, aggravation, and even mischief. From this alone, those of us familiar with King Saul through Bible bedtime stories and Sunday school have always pictured him sullen and enraged. And justifiably so since most of his last days were spent in murderous pursuit of David. But the next word in our study may slightly change how we have traditionally viewed the way this evil spirit affected him.

As often as we have pictured King Saul in furious rampage, dark circles under his eyes, wielding a spear, we have also seen him clench-fisted and curled on his throne glowering in a fit of rage.
This may not be what the word “tormented” suggests. The Bible used the word ba`ath, which means “afraid.” Although the Bible never mentioned the king wailing and screaming in fear in the night, it actually mentions that an evil spirit terrified him, so often so much that in fact the following verse shows how his palace staff members saw the terror he suffered from the ghost. The dread was go great that for his closest personnel to offer their unsolicited advices (more or less) on how to exorcize this demon meant that the haunting was taking precedence over the vital affairs of state, and probably even over the health of good ol’ King Saul.

Through young David son of Jesse, the exorcism was successful. Partially, that is, in that 1 Samuel 16:23 uses the word “Whenever” to begin its statement: “Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” In the New Living Translation, the word “whenever” is also used by the servants during the time they were making their proposition to the king: “Let us find a good musician to play the harp whenever the tormenting spirit troubles you” (verse 16, emphasis mine). “Whenever” means that the spirit never left him permanently. And this was clear as the story of the king’s life came to a violent close in the end of 1 Samuel. In chapter 28, he finally comes face to face with this spirit who takes the form of the Prophet Samuel through the conjuring of the witch of Endor, making its final threat that came to pass in the battle on Mount Gilboa.

II. The Torment of Rage:

Saul’s Jealousy and Envy. The spirit’s torment of fear gradually ended shortly after David assumed his role as the king’s personal harp player. And after the sixteenth chapter of 1 Samuel, it was not heard from again. But a frightening event took place after David got promoted from harp musician to warrior. In the midst of all the singing and rejoicing and victory, “an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul” (18:10). What happened? 1 Samuel 18:8 reveals one tiny attitude that served as an open gate for the spirit to seize: jealousy.

David’s “Tens of Thousands.” The passage before this is very noteworthy: “Saul was very angry, this refrain galled him” (verse 8). The “refrain” that displeased him was the women’s song to which they even danced to that went, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (verse 7). Upon hearing this, Saul developed “a jealous eye” (verse 9) on David on the suspicion of “what more can he get [next] but the kingdom.”

It can also be construed that Saul was caught blindsided by the attention women were giving to David than to him. Remember that from his pre-king days, Saul already enjoyed the attention of admiration from his countrymen, being one “impressive” and “without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:2). The passage “a head taller than any of the others” was reiterated in 10:23. In 9:12 to 13, the girls he and his servant met were remarkably helpful when they asked for directions where the Prophet Samuel lived.

Saul valued public opinion; he was sensitive to the sentiments of the people around him, which is why he was easily swayed along with the single wave of popular emotion. In 1 Samuel 13:11–12, when his men panicked, so did he. In 18:5, he extracted pride from the approval of all the people and his officers when he opted to give David a high rank in his army for the incident with Goliath. For that same reason, however, the magnet of popularity now fell on David. And Saul could not take it.

Saul’s Recruitment of Mighty Men. In 1 Samuel 16:21 to 22, another element of Saul’s jealousy is revealed in how possessively he treated David. Leading up to this, 14:52 attests that Saul, throughout his reign, was in the habit of gathering for himself brave and mighty men whom he imperiously took into his service. It was the same with David, except that when the boy started service, it is said that Saul “liked him very much” (verse 21) and even made a request the boy’s father to “allow David to remain in [his royal] service” (verse 22). Then in the eighteenth chapter, “Saul kept David with him, and did not let him return to his father’s house” (verse 2). David proved to be an excellent harp player, then a successful warrior (verse 5), and a most worthy friend to his son Jonathan (verses 1, 3 and 4). So long as David remained under the service of the king and his son, treatments and relationship flowed in the terms of love and peace. But when David’s popularity rose to rival that of his and his house, as suggested by the women’s refrain in 18:7, Saul found his subordinate’s good fortune too sour for him to bear.

And so one seemingly uneventful yet fine day, while David was playing the harp, Saul suddenly found a spear, grabbed it, and decided to play pin-the-kid-on-the-wall (1 Samuel 18:11). This urge came while the king “was prophesying in his house” (verse 10). The spirit world was open for him—but to someone else, not to God. The uncanny unfolding of events did not stop. In verse 12, notice that “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.”

Saul and the Gibeonites. The story of Saul’s treachery of the Gibeonites stemmed from his “zeal for Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 21:2). The three-year famine that resulted because of this proved no valid connection between his “zeal” and the murder of the Gibeonites. It is not precisely indicated whether this happened before or after the time of the Amalekite controversy, yet the lesson in this mistake is found in Saul’s attempt to deliver “Divine Judgment” upon whom he arbitrarily chose.

The Gibeonites were a race of Canaanites who, during Joshua’s invasion of the Promised Land, resorted into a ruse to elicit a treaty and keep them from the exterminating sword of the Israelites. The story is in the ninth chapter of Joshua. The big mistake here was that the Israelites “did not inquire of the Lord” (Joshua 9:14) to see through the deception. It can be understood that the Gibeonites orchestrated a successful tactic that maneuvered the Israelites into considering them as they were during their wandering days in the desert.

A Gibeonite delegation set out dressed in rags and dragging along donkeys loaded with worn-out sacks and wineskins cracked and mended. The Israelites, seeing themselves in the shoes of this weary and impoverished caravan and probably even remembering the command of God never to vex a stranger (Exodus 22:21), regarding how it was being strangers themselves (Exodus 23:9), thought it was alright to establish a peace treaty with these people. Yet the most compelling testimony of these strangers was when they claimed to be “from a very distant country” (Joshua 9:9). The Gibeonite deception was so elaborate that it had in its arsenal a great deal of documented events “of the fame of the Lord,” enough to puff up the heads of His people.

The peace treaty that was struck that day was based on an oath to God that must never be broken, no matter how infuriated the Israelites became three days later when they found out that the Gibeonites were actually “neighbors, living near them” (verse 16). In this context was the rage of Saul based, when “in his zeal…(he) tried to annihilate them” (2 Samuel 21:2). In mindless rage, with no regard of the consequences of breaking an everlasting oath made by his forefather Joshua, Saul sought to accomplish for “Israel and Judah” what had never been or must never be attempted. What Joshua and the Israelites then dreaded of falling on them for breaking an oath descended upon Israel during David’s reign, and it cost the lives of seven of Saul’s male descendants. David handed to the Gibeonites seven of Saul’s surviving grandsons to be slain and exposed in the very city Saul had named for himself (2 Samuel 21:7–9). The word “zeal” in this verse is the Hebrew qana, affirming a malicious zeal borne out of jealousy or envy.

It was a misplaced zeal that Saul launched himself against the Gibeonites. It was a zeal that was supposed to have surfaced in the offensive against the Amalekites.

So it was now fear and rage possessing the king. It seems that David’s harp was no longer effective to keep this demon away from toying with his beloved king. At that point, there was nothing more David could do. It was clear that Saul had allowed for to be controlled by this tormenting spirit that numerous times he had carried out feats of defiance against God: the murder of the priests of Nob and his pursuit of David even when he had already seen the blessing of God upon the young man’s life, even the certainty of becoming the next king of Israel. His compulsive temper quickly developed into a personality damage that ultimately destroyed his life, the life of his sons, and his household.

More study on King Saul to come.

PHOTO CREDITS: CorbisImages.com

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