There is, perhaps, no better way to begin to describe Saul, son of Kish, except in the words of David upon Saul’s death: “How are the mighty fallen!” (II Sam. 1:19). Saul had great promise as a leader of God’s people. He was the first king of the new, Jewish monarchy, chosen by the Lord Himself (I Sam. 9:16). David often described him as “the Lord’s anointed” (e.g., I Sam. 24:10 26:9, 11, 16), as did Samuel (I Sam. 10:1). Physically, he was an impressive man, literally standing head and shoulders above every other man in Israel (I sam. 9:2). Though Saul downplayed it to Samuel (9:21), he was the son of a mighty man of power (9:1).
In the beginning, he was reluctant to become king, even to the point of “hiding among the stuff” (I Sam. 10:22). However, a short time after he was anointed king, he moved with great purpose and rallied the children of Israel and defeated the Ammonites so badly that there was not two of them left together (I Sam. 11:11). Saul had had his detractors. When he was first anointed king, some had spoken despairingly of him and did not honor him with presents (10:27). But now, after his impressive leadership against the Ammonites, all Israel came to Gilgal and renewed the kingdom there (11:14). While the people wanted to kill Saul’s detractors, he compassionately spared their lives and focused instead on the fact that this was the Lord’s victory (11:13).
But this humility and trust in God soon gave way to pride and trust in his own sword. The first crack in his character showed when Samuel was just a little late for an appointment with Saul in Gilgal, and the Philistines were gathered en masse and poised to attack at Michmash (13:4,5,8) and Israel was seemingly losing their trust in Saul and fleeing to the mountains, caves and pits (13:6). Saul became weary in waiting and proceeded to superficially present offerings to God (13:9). No sooner was this done that Samuel appeared and reproved Saul for his presumptuous actions (13:11). In what was to be the first in a series of character trait flaws, Saul blamed others and never took responsibility himself. Saul blamed his actions on Samuel being late and said “I forced myself” to act (13:11,12).
Even though Saul reigned for forty years, and this event was early during that period, yet it signaled the beginning of a downward spiral in Saul’s life that eventually ended in his death. Samuel told Saul, “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord” (13:13). Had Saul had kept God’s commandments, God would have established his kingdom upon Israel forever, but now his kingdom would not continue. God’s promises of blessings are always conditional upon obedience.
Saul committed yet another foolish act during the battle with the Philistines when he commanded his men not to eat any food till the evening, until he had been avenged of his enemies (14:24). This oath had repercussions that affected even his own son. First, it greatly distressed the men of Israel for they were faint from lack of sustenance (14:31). It further hurt God’s people because when the battle was concluded, they took of the spoil and ate the flesh with the blood, they were so famished (14:32). Finally, because Jonathan, his son, had not heard this command, he naturally took of some honey that he found on the ground while fighting and it gave him energy to continue. However, Saul wanted to slay his own son for breaking an oath for which he had no knowledge and which, to begin with, was unwise (14:44). It was only through the intervention of the people that Jonathan was saved (14:45)
Saul continued his downward spiral when, after being given a charge by God to utterly destroy the Amalekites, he spared “the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them” (15:9). When confronted by Samuel about this, he returned to his favorite weapon–blame someone else. Saul said it was the people who took the spoil to save it to sacrifice to God (15:20,21). Obviously, as king, Saul had a hand in this, as well (15:9). Samuel informed Saul that the LORD does not have 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 hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (15:22,23). God was going to strip the kingdom from him and give it to a man after God’s own heart.
Samuel gives the key to understanding the change that occurred in Saul. Samuel said that initially Saul was little in his own sight (15:17). At the first, Saul was humble and obedient to the Lord. He hid from the spotlight leadership. He downplayed his own beginnings (9:21). He was magnanimous to those who despised him (10:27). He did not feel compelled to boast about his being chosen as king to his uncle (10:16). After he was chosen and anointed and the people cheered, he went back home (10:26). He was even filled with the power of the Spirit of God and prophesied (10:10). But with a little power, Saul began to think more highly of himself than he ought. He began conscripting people to be warriors and he began disregarding God’s commands.
By the time David is introduced into the narrative, Saul is well on his way to madness. When the women begin praising David more than Saul, it is too much for him to bear and he spends the rest of his life trying to destroy David and regain his legacy, if not for himself, for his son Jonathan. His attempts at destroying David are continually thwarted by his daughter, by his son, by the priests and especially by God. God had great plans for Saul but Saul’s lust for power grew out of control and ultimately ended in his shameful demise (I Sam. 31:8-10). How are the mighty fallen!
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12).
Eric L. Padgett