On the Edge of Greatness - Part 1
This book profiles the lives and times of the many kings who served as leaders of God's people. Some are well-known to us and others less so, but every one of their stories provides a rich treasure of human experience that can be applied to our own lives today. Paul the Apostle, in speaking about the lives of Old Testament characters, says that their life experiences were recorded and kept as a teaching device for subsequent generations of believers:
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
- I Corinthians 10:11
And so, we begin this book entitled, "Lessons From the Kings: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times" where we will look at either the life or a specific episode in a king's rule and see if we can draw some practical lessons for our own lives as Christians, for the times we live in today.
These men lived in very different social and cultural contexts than we do today, but we share the same belief in God and desire to know and do His will just as they did. We also share similar human natures weakened by sin and subject to temptation and failure as they did. How God dealt with them is similar to how He deals with us today. I believe, therefore, that examining their relationship with the Lord will be quite illuminating.
The ruler that we will begin with is King Saul, the first king of Israel appointed by God. In studying his life and reign we will see how one person who began his service to the Lord as king managed to lose his bid for greatness because of personal weakness.
Background on Saul
The story of Saul is set about 200 years (1052 BC) after the Jews had entered the Promised Land, having completed their wanderings in the desert for 40 years. Each tribe had been assigned a portion of the territory and were busy subduing and settling into the cities formerly held by the pagan nations that had previously inhabited the land. With time, however, the Jewish people became less zealous in eradicating these nations according to God's original command through Moses. Instead, they began to enslave or make treaties with them. This approach was easier and proved more profitable in that they acquired slave labor and avoided the difficult task of waging war against the pagan peoples in that place. Because of their disobedience, God sustained certain pagan nations in the area and used them to punish the Jews for their stubbornness. One such nation was the Philistines. They lived on a small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast and were fierce enemies of the Jews for many decades.
During this period of time God ruled the Jews directly (theocracy) through the laws and commands He had given Moses. From time to time, however, He would send a special leader (judge) to help the people through a period of trial and trouble. We read about these men and women in the book of Judges. People like Samson, Gideon or Deborah were appointed by God for a particular mission to lead or rescue the people when they were in danger. The last and greatest of these "judges" was Samuel who was dedicated as a child by his parents to the service of the Lord:
- He was the last great judge of Israel.
- He was also a prophet (I Samuel 3:20, Acts 3:24).
- He served as a priest offering up sacrifices on behalf of the people.
During his lifetime of ministry, the Israelites were constantly attacked and threatened by their enemy, the Philistines. In his book (I Samuel), Samuel describes the state of affairs taking place as the Jews suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of this enemy. The climax occurs when the pagan nation actually captures the Ark of the Covenant from the Jews.
The ark was a box-like container with angelic statues on the cover, and originally housed the stone tablets of the commandments, Aaron's rod and a jar containing manna. The Jews had come to believe that if this vessel was in their possession, they were invincible in battle. Of course, it was obedience to the Lord and faith in Him that guaranteed victory, but the Jews had wandered away from this reality and had begun to trust the object representing God's presence instead of God Himself. The loss of the ark was a great psychological blow to the Jews and demoralized them in the face of their enemy.
A little later in chapters 5-7 of I Samuel we see how God punished the Philistines for keeping the ark, to the point where they actually gave it back to the Jews because it was causing so many problems for them. In I Samuel 7 we see Samuel himself lead the nation in a period of repentance and restoration which ultimately produces a temporary peace between themselves and their enemies, especially the Philistines. Later in life, Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel, but they were not anointed by God and proved to be corrupt as leaders of the people.
It seemed to the nation that Samuel's sons would not be as effective in leadership as Samuel had been so the people (not waiting on God's direction) demanded that Samuel appoint them a king to rule over the land. In other words, they took matters into their own hands.
Samuel warned the people that a human king would create as many problems as he would solve, but the people were adamant in wanting a rulership style resembling that of their pagan neighbors. God instructed Samuel to go ahead in his search for a Jewish king to lead the nation and reminded him that in doing this thing, the Jewish people were not rejecting Samuel and his work among them, but rather were rejecting God Himself who had been their King. Into this historical context stepped Saul, the first human king of Israel.
Saul's Early Years and Finest Hour
The story of Saul's time as king is described in I Samuel 9-11.
The Choice of Saul as King
We begin with his original anointing by Samuel and Saul's reaction.
1 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bechorath, the son of Aphiah, a Benjamite, a mighty man of power. 2 And he had a choice and handsome son whose name was Saul. There was not a more handsome person than he among the children of Israel. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. 3 Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul's father, were lost. And Kish said to his son Saul, "Please take one of the servants with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys." 4 So he passed through the mountains of Ephraim and through the land of Shalisha, but they did not find them. Then they passed through the land of Shaalim, and they were not there. Then he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they did not find them. 5 When they had come to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, "Come, let us return, lest my father cease caring about the donkeys and become worried about us."
- I Samuel 9:1-5
We learn that he was from the smallest of the tribes located in the western part of Judah (nearest to the Philistine nation). His father was respected for his courage and honor. Saul was taller than average and good looking. He was also quite attached to his father.
As we read the rest of the chapter, we also find out that although he believed in God and the Law, he was not well-versed in the words and commands of God. We catch a glimpse of this lack of instruction when we see Saul relying on a lowly servant to explain to him how one was to approach a prophet.
As the story of chapter 9 continues, we see Saul and his servant detour from their original task of finding lost donkeys to seeking out a prophet who might give them help in their journey. This was an unusual request for a prophet, and in it, we see Saul's penchant for using "spiritual" powers to serve purely financial or physical ends. In verse 15 of chapter 9, the writer informs us that Samuel is told by God that a certain man will come to him from the land of Benjamin (where Saul was from) and Samuel is to anoint him king. Upon meeting him, Samuel reassures him that the animals are safe at home, and continues by pronouncing a gracious blessing on him. Saul is confused and a little suspicious, and responds warily to Samuel's words.
17 So when Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said to him, "There he is, the man of whom I spoke to you. This one shall reign over My people." 18 Then Saul drew near to Samuel in the gate, and said, "Please tell me, where is the seer's house?" 19 Samuel answered Saul and said, "I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for you shall eat with me today; and tomorrow I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart. 20 But as for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not be anxious about them, for they have been found. And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on you and on all your father's house?" 21 And Saul answered and said, "Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?"
At the dinner they share later on, Samuel gives Saul the honored place at the table and the choicest portion signifying his new role as leader. Later on in chapter 10, Samuel anoints Saul as king and describes to him several things that will take place that day, which will prove that his appointment is from God:
- He prophesies that his animals have been found.
- He describes his father's feelings about him.
- He even explains in detail the people he will meet and the event that will take place in the hours to come, on his return home.
The most significant of these events will be that at some point Saul will meet a group of prophets and will himself begin to prophesy along with them. Remember now, he is a person who didn't know how to approach a prophet and now he is going to speak like one. All of these signs are given to him in order to confirm that his anointing is from God. Finally, after all of this is explained, Samuel instructs Saul on what he must do in response:
You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.
- I Samuel 10:8
(Remember this command. We will come back to it in our next chapter.)
After his meeting with Samuel, Saul returns home and experiences all of the things predicted by Samuel, but he does not report to his family what took place concerning his anointing as king. He is still reluctant to believe and accept what has taken place.
In 10:17 and forward, we read about the public selection of Saul as king. Samuel calls a gathering of all the people and begins by chastising them for having rejected the Lord's rulership over them and demanding to have an earthly king instead. He then informs them that despite this rejection God has granted their request and will furnish them with a king.
At this point Samuel proceeds to take lots from among the tribes to narrow down the field of contenders, then from the heads of families in order to bring the choice to one particular person among them. We see that even through this selection process, Saul is still the one that is chosen. Of course, the people see this as a drawing of lots to choose a leader, but Samuel and Saul know it is yet another sign from God confirming his anointing. And once again, we see Saul's reluctance. When the people searched for Saul in order to inform him of his selection, they found him hiding among the baggage (I Samuel 11:21-24). Once he accepted his position, Samuel writes that there were some who refused to accept Saul as king and others who, by God's influence, supported him immediately and wholeheartedly.
Saul's Finest Hour
If one were writing a book about Saul's life and reign as king, a good title would be: "On the Edge of Greatness." This title would work because very early on Saul showed a glimmer of being a great king and a great man of God. Samuel describes his finest hour in chapter 11:1-14
1 Then Nahash the Ammonite came up and encamped against Jabesh Gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, "Make a covenant with us, and we will serve you." 2 And Nahash the Ammonite answered them, "On this condition I will make a covenant with you, that I may put out all your right eyes, and bring reproach on all Israel." 3 Then the elders of Jabesh said to him, "Hold off for seven days, that we may send messengers to all the territory of Israel. And then, if there is no one to save us, we will come out to you." 4 So the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and told the news in the hearing of the people. And all the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 Now there was Saul, coming behind the herd from the field; and Saul said, "What troubles the people, that they weep?" And they told him the words of the men of Jabesh. 6 Then the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard this news, and his anger was greatly aroused. 7 So he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, "Whoever does not go out with Saul and Samuel to battle, so it shall be done to his oxen." And the fear of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out with one consent. 8 When he numbered them in Bezek, the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. 9 And they said to the messengers who came, "Thus you shall say to the men of Jabesh Gilead: 'Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have help.'" Then the messengers came and reported it to the men of Jabesh, and they were glad. 10 Therefore the men of Jabesh said, "Tomorrow we will come out to you, and you may do with us whatever seems good to you." 11 So it was, on the next day, that Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch, and killed Ammonites until the heat of the day. And it happened that those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together. 12 Then the people said to Samuel, "Who is he who said, 'Shall Saul reign over us?' Bring the men, that we may put them to death." 13 But Saul said, "Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has accomplished salvation in Israel." 14 Then Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and renew the kingdom there."
Saul manages to rise to the challenge of the enemy. He galvanizes his forces and wages a successful war against the Ammonites. When victory is in hand, Saul shows that he can be gracious by sparing the lives of those who were opposed to his selection as king. Finally, he gives glory to God for the victory and shows great spiritual leadership at a critical moment in the nation's history.
We note that this happy episode ends well as the people unanimously confirm Saul's anointing as king with sacrifices and joyful praise to God. The chapter ends with a final warning by Samuel to the people that in order to continue the blessings and protection of the Lord, they and their new king must obey Him and serve Him. If not, even their new king won't be able to save them.
This chapter ends with Saul at a high point in his rule having consolidated his power and position with the people through this swift victory and statesmanlike conduct towards his detractors. All is well in Israel for the moment, but following events will plot Saul's tragic decline into madness.
Even though Saul lived 3000 years ago, we can draw very relevant lessons which apply to our lives today:
Lesson #1 — The world usually rejects God's servants
Saul was not unanimously accepted at first and even he himself had trouble believing that God had chosen him. This is quite normal for those who are called into God's service. They doubt themselves and are not always accepted by others.
- If you've become a Christian or if you've tried to convince others of your faith, don't be surprised if not many are happy for you.
- If you stake a claim to be with God, to now walk with the Lord in obedience or service, this means that you reject the world and thus reject the values of the world. Be prepared, therefore, for the world to reject you back and disown you for your newfound faith.
Lesson #2 — Be careful what you ask for
The people, against God's wishes, asked for a king. Samuel warned them that a human king would devour their wealth (taxes), take their daughters (servants/wives) and turn their sons into soldiers (wars). However, the people persisted in their demand and received their king and all of the problems along with him.
The point here is that God will allow you to pursue people and things that are bad for you, if you insist on doing it. Unless you are intensely seeking His will in a matter, He will allow you to choose and obtain your heart's desire, even if it destroys you. This is the down-side of free will. This is why Jesus instructs us to pray, "…Lead us not into temptation" Matthew 6:13, so that God will help us seek after those things that come from above, not below.
Lesson #3 — Wait for God's anointing
Note in the story that Samuel tried to anoint his own sons to succeed him (and they were unsuitable for leadership). He failed to remember his own experience where God called him to serve as a judge, prophet and priest, and not Eli the priest he had served under as a boy. Note also that the people chose for themselves the type of leader to succeed Samuel, not waiting for God to send them a successor. They received a king, but only by default. Had they waited for God's anointing, they would have saved themselves a lot of grief. God's anointing is God's blessing, God's choice, God's way.
- Sometimes we can know it because it is clearly spelled out in His word.
- Sometimes the word provides principles to guide us.
- And sometimes we have to wait for events and circumstances to move in order to know God's anointing.
Whether it be a call to ministry, or finding a marriage partner, or deciding on a career, a move or a purchase…if we seek God's anointing and are patient to wait for it, we will receive it. When Jesus says, "Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened," Matthew 7:7, He's not referring to cars and money or health, He's talking about the anointing.
Ask, seek, knock in your search for God's way in your life and you will receive the answer, find the way and discover the right door that God will open for you.