The story of Saul is dramatic and complex, raising questions about the way God interacted with him. We will examine the experience of Israel at that time and the specific sins of Saul.
Give Us a King
During the judgeship of Samuel, Israel went through one of the most significant leadership changes in the history of the nation. On Sinai God transformed the 12 tribes into a “holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), and He was recognized by the people as their king (verse 8; cf. Ex. 15:18). Thus the theocracy was established. In Canaan God appointed administrative assistants, the judges, but He continued to be the exclusive king of Israel. At the time of Samuel, Israel’s leaders were supplanting God’s administrative structure with a new one, namely, human kingship à la the surrounding nations. This model was in many respects incompatible with faith in the Lord. If accepted, it would have to be transformed or reformulated. The first book of Samuel is about this redefinition of the proposed new system.
The Ideal King
The redefinition required, among other things, first, a person that would be “a servant of the Lord,” totally loyal and submissive to God’s will as king. The phrase “servant of the Lord” became a messianic title (e.g., Isa. 53:11). In fact, the king would be a “leader/prince” under the Lord (Heb. nagid; e.g., 1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 13:14). Second, the king/prince, chosen by God, would have to be “a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), fully supporting the divine agenda for the people.
Third, the king would be a servant of the people, walking before them as their humble leader (1 Sam. 12:2; 1 Kings 12:7). Fourth, God would use a prophet to guide, instruct, and, if necessary, discipline the king (1 Sam. 10:8).
Saul the First King
Although at first Saul was humble and even timid, once he experienced success, he changed. The first test came when he could not wait for Samuel to offer the sacrifice before going to battle (1 Sam. 13:9-14). He feared the people would abandon him and instead of waiting he acted independent of the Lord and offered the sacrifice. His decision revealed his unwillingness to function within God’s redefinition of kingship. Samuel had told Saul to wait for he would tell Saul what to do (1 Sam. 10:8). Saul rejected prophetic guidance. The fact that he could not wait for fear of failure reveals a major spiritual flaw: Saul did not trust in God’s saving power. Consequently, he was not a servant of the Lord.
The second test came after Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites as commanded by the Lord (1 Sam. 15:7-9). Saul preserved alive the king and the best animals. This was an act of blatant insubordination, a rebellion against the Lord. When confronted by Samuel, Saul offered excuses, e.g., the animals were intended to be offerings for the Lord. At this point Samuel provides a profound interpretation of Saul’s inner being: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft [divination or knowing the future; cf. 1 Sam. 28:8], and stubbornness [doing what pleases you] is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23). What Saul did was the equivalent of witchcraft and idolatry, thus manifesting that he had rejected the Lord, and now the Lord rejected him. He remained on the throne until God found a person “after His own heart”—David. David became the ideal king, a type of the coming Messiah, the true Servant of the Lord (Phil. 2:7).