Monday, May 2, 2011

Lessons From the Life of King Saul: A Man After God's Own Heart

Like many things in the Israelite culture, the king was intended to be a living symbol of the promised Christ. And Saul, being honored to be the first, was groomed to be the most resplendent, the closest likeness of the Messiah. His very reign as king takes after that of the Messiah’s. The intended reward of winning God’s campaigns reveals this. Had he plunged into battle against the numerically superior Philistines in Micmash, believing that God would do the same to them as to the Ammonites in 1 Samuel 11, God could have not only won him the victory that day but also “established [his] kingdom over Israel for all time” (1 Samuel 13:13). It was clear at that point alone that Saul was not the one after God’s own heart, as God’s Spirit immediately embarked to seek out the one who was, whose kingdom He would later approve and establish. In spite of this, he was continued to be tolerated by God upon the throne until chapter 15 when his defiance of the mandate on completely annihilating the Amalekites demanded the immediate abdication of the crown.

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The Prophet Samuel accused Saul of changing his mind. This was of no trivial matter as we today might understand. The changing of Saul’s mind referred to his inveterate disobedience to God’s commands. God would never violate His will. And because Saul was God’s most prominent earthly representation, God expected Saul’s will to be one with His. The latter would think as God would think, would act as He would act, speak as He would speak. This meant that the king frequented God’s presence in prayer, in study of the Scriptures, and in worship. Saul made a habit of this, “prophesying in his house” (1 Samuel 18:10). A part of an Israelite king’s calling is to “shadow” the Almighty. A modern-day Christian will relate to this as his daily devotions when much of the same activity is performed with the chances to speak to, learn of, praise God and experience His presence are taken. Daily devotions have not changed much from ancient times, only that an Israelite king had to do it more. 

Jesus the King, Whom Saul Was Supposed to have Typifed:

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Spending time in the presence of God made one like God. The Israelite kings and prophets knew this. The people knew this. It was an ideal belief that beholding the king was to perfectly examine the image of God. Let it be clear, however, that the king was not God or a god. Kinghood did not elevate a mortal into any level of divinity. Such an understanding would violate the First Commandment. Nor was a king equal to God. But as Moses was to the Israelites during their desert wandering days, a king’s function was to be an intermediary between Him and His people. His symbol was to be a lasting reminder of the promised Messiah until the appointed time of His visitation.

When Jesus came to earth, though His first visitation was not for His installation as King but as One to be “offered to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28 King James Version), He nonetheless embodied the essence of God’s King and Champion. Jesus referred to Himself as King. In Matthew 27:11, He confirmed Pilate’s inquiry on whether he was “the king of the Jews.” Clearly, He is the King of God’s children, not merely those who called themselves the children of Abraham (Luke 3:8). The Apostle Paul confirmed this in Romans 9:6-9:

“For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”

The life of Jesus reflected how the spiritual life of an Israelite king should have been. Indeed, He even hinted on when He said, “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. I always do what pleases him” (John 8:28-29). And again, “I am telling you what I have seen in my Father’s presence” (v.39). Jesus’ teachings conveyed so much regarding His true Kingship, the very kingship God prescribed for Israel. The true kingship Saul was required to follow was to “honor” God (v.49), “not seeking glory for [himself]” (v.50). A king was required to know God, even as Jesus knew Him (v.55). And in adopting these mission statements, a king would be glorified by God even as He glorified Jesus (v.54), even as He glorified King David in 2 Samuel 7 after he began to set out to build God a holy temple.

The essence of a king’s life was obedience to God, even as Jesus’ life was totally lived in obedience. In spite of the status, a king maintained humility—not in poverty and austerity, but in honest assessment of his place in relation to God’s will: as a conduit of God’s purpose for His people. In this humility was founded Jesus’ confidence:

“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:61-62).

"Are you the King of the Jews?" Pilate asked. One of the honest questions Pilate asked Jesus. This one He answers with complete honesty coupled with boldness: "You have said so" (Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3). In John 18:34, He offers a very uncanny reply: "Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?" In spite of His weakened state, Jesus was still willing to engage Pilate into a talk for the salvation of his eternal soul, much like the one He had with Nicodemus back in John 3. Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum/Corbis.

And this was not the mere delusional raving of one who had an overproduction of hormonal morphine due to terror and severe beatings. In Acts 7:55 the deacon Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, saw “heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The writer of the Book of Hebrews quoted King David the poetic singing the Father reserved for Jesus: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Hebrews 1:5 and Psalm 2:7). The honor the Father afforded Jesus was so profound that He even called Him “God” in Hebrews 1:8-9:

“But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.’”

Indeed, the entire first chapter of Hebrews was dedicated to the Father’s honoring of Jesus the Son.

Who else but royalty would know that Jesus was King? There were the Persian magi who anticipated with great respect the coming of the King of the Jews. And there was the pretender who feared the coming of this One and True King, whose throne he allegedly owned. Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum/Corbis.

Saul Sought Honor for Himself:

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It was supposed to be something the same for Saul if he battled to curb his rebellious streak. The moment Saul decided to change his mind and preserve the life of the Amalekite King Agag and the choice of the Amalekite cattle, sheep, calves, and lambs, God saw him turn away from Him.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions” (1 Samuel 15:10-11).

And the Prophet Samuel, ever the man who felt what God felt, grieved with God. The following passage said that “Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.” Early the next day, he went to confront Saul and deliver God’s message. That was the last time the Prophet came face-to-face with the very first one he anointed as king, the fair one who hid among the baggage to escape detection on his inauguration as king. The one heart God longed for with a king was shared at that time with the Prophet Samuel as they grieved for the spiritual fall of Saul (15:35).

The Prophet Samuel’s rebuke to Saul went as such: “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (15:23). It has been discussed earlier that a king, as based in Jesus’ example, did not seek glory for himself but for God. A king must never claim equality with God nor must he allege that he was a god like God. One well-known spiritual figure who aspired for this lost his place in heaven:

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“How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cat down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:12-14).

And because God honors His king, a king who turns corrupt and forgets his place in God loses his place in God, like the same “morning star,” who was, in Ezekiel 28:12-19, “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” who lived “in Eden the garden of God,” adorned with “every precious stone,” “anointed as a guardian cherub,” who stood on “the holy mount of God” and “walked among the fiery stones,” “blameless” in all his ways. But “wickedness was found” in him. He was “filled with violence” and he sinned. On account of his beauty he became proud and he corrupted his wisdom because of his splendor.

This may well outline Saul’s life. In 2 Samuel 21:1, God recalled the House of Saul and called it “blood-stained.” In 1 Samuel 14:47, the victory of Saul over all his enemies was marred by great violence. The terror he exhibited in the battlefield was described as “zeal,” or bloodlust. The zeal he displayed, however, was not the problem. Even the priest Phinehas in Numbers 25:7 drove a spear through the bodies of a fornicating Israelite and his consort to turn the wrath of God against His idolatrous people.  God commended him for this:

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him that I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his god and made atonement for the Israelites’” (Numbers 25:10–13).

The focus of Saul’s zeal, on the other hand, was not for God’s honor. In his murderous campaign against the Gibeonites, a people whom the Israelites swore on an oath never to kill, it said that it was “for Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 21:1). Had he applied this same zeal on the Amalekites, he might have received a great reward from God as did Phinehas.

But the boldest act of enmity against God is found in 1 Samuel 22 when he threatened with death Ahimelech priest of Nob and his family (v.16), ordered the death of the priests of the Lord (v.17, 18), and sanctioned the slaughter of the men, women, children, cattle, donkey, and sheep of Nob (v.19). The reason for the genocide: “because they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, yet they did not tell me” (v.17). “Me,” of course, being Saul.

The Sea People, known in the Bible as the Philistines. A bitter rival during Saul's time which cost him God's favor for the throne forever. Photo credit: Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS

We have learned in our earlier lessons that Saul, in his fallen spiritual mentality, focused on his popularity. He realized that God was no longer with him to establish his rule; he knew full well that the withdrawal of God’s Spirit from him meant abdication of the throne, and he was not willing to this. The next best way in his understanding to ensure he stays in power was through popular opinion. This meant listening to what the people wanted and giving, or giving in, to it. Saul was predisposed to this. We can recall how he admitted to offering up the burnt offerings intended for the Prophet Samuel to sacrifice because he saw that his soldiers were scattering (1 Samuel 13:11). In 15:21, Saul conveniently blamed the soldiers for taking the “sheep and cattle from the plunder…in order to sacrifice them to the Lord.” Later on, he affirmed that he was “afraid of the people” (v.24) and therefore disobeys God’s mandate. Popular opinion meant so much to Saul. This weakness manifested in his leadership of his army. In spite of a following of valiant soldiers whose hearts God had touched from his inauguration as king (1 Samuel 10:26), Saul miserably failed as a commander-in-chief. On several occasions he lost control over his army, like the time when his tired and hungry force was reduced into a dispersion of ravenous wild men pouncing on enemy plunder, butchering sheep, cattle and calves on the ground where they stood and gorging on them together with the blood (1 Samuel 14:32). In this same story, the discipline of his son Jonathan was beyond him in that the latter was out on his own venture against a Philistine detachment and was uninformed of the rash vow Saul had made against eating food before nightfall and before routing the Philistines (v.24). 

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In Saul’s life as king, he was known as a valiant fighter, a hero who delivered Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them, including the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:48). He was deliverer. And as with all deliverers, songs of them were sung, alluding to the “thousands” he had slain. Notice, however, to where  the battles were dedicated:

“He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.”

He was a fierce fighter—“Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies” (1 Samuel 14:24)—with a zeal that fought “for Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 21:2). And because of the love he showed for the kingdom, he expected the kingdom to love him back by keeping him on the throne. If his institution upon the throne were based on democracy, his chance of maintaining power may have been great.

On the night before his death, he comes face to face with the inevitable truth of the source of his political right and his life:

“Because you did not obey the Lord…the Lord has done this for you today. The Lord will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines” (verses 18-19).

On the day of the fateful battle, judgment came surely to Saul. And the descent of his death was not as swift and painless as an arrow through the heart or a blade through the vital gut. He suffered great seeking death which toyed with him as a child frolicking in a game of tag. As he squirmed in the battlefield that day he was drenched in the very fear he inebriated himself with from the day he lit the torch of his distrust and defiance to God’s command.

What could have been for Saul, as based on the examples of Kings Jehoicachin and David:


Saul did not survive the battlefield. It was different from what another king centuries after Saul experienced when Israel came into Babylonian control. The Southern Israelite kingdom of Judah fell into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C. The Mesopotamian monarch exiled Jerusalem’s King Jehoiachin to Babylon. For about forty years, Jehoiachin was a prisoner but later set free in the reign of Evil-Merodach (2 Kings 25:27). This succeeding ruler to Jehoiachin’s captor “released Jehoiachin from prison…spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon” (verses 27-28). Two more verses continue to say, “So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.”

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What was the difference between Saul and Jehoiachin? In answering this, we must revise the question and put King David into the picture in place of Jehoiachin. God made a tremendous promise of preservation of his lineage and rule of Israel. In 2 Samuel 7:11-12, the Prophet Nathan reports to David the dream he had the night before:

“The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you. When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body.”

In ending the message of God to David: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; and your throne will be established forever” (v.17).

 This promise should have been Saul’s had he not distrusted the deliverance of God against the Philistine armies assembled at Micmash, as we have read many times in 1 Samuel 13. Down the years, in spite of Israel’s apostasy, God remained faithful to His promise. In 1 Kings 11:32, He remembered David and saved Judah, elevating the status of this tribe into a kingdom, for his rule to remain unbroken through the succession of his offspring. In 2 Kings 19:34 and 20:6, God in His power would not allow the destruction of Jerusalem “for the sake of …David,” the latter verse item includes the healing of King Hezekiah who was by then “ill and was at the point of death” (verse 1). The Prophet Isaiah included this event in his book in Isaiah 34:35. Other wonderful prophecies regarding God’s promise to David and his everlasting rule can be read in Ezekiel 34:23 to 24 and 37:25.

The confidence of David was God and His promises. David understood that it was God and for His purpose that he was placed on the throne, as expressed in his prayer of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 7:25 to 26: “And now, Lord God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then men will say, ‘The Lord Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established before you.” David was eager for the promise of God to be fulfilled in his life—that is, to establish his throne forever (verse 16)—to see the purpose of God fully accomplished on earth.

1 comment:

  1. May we keep in focus this blueprint of obedience of David, and be wary against any quandary that may lead us believers replicate Saul's errors.