King Saul

On the Edge of Greatness - Part 2

This second lesson examines the various patterns of behavior that lead to King Saul's eventual downfall.
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We are studying the life of King Saul under the title, "On the Edge of Greatness." I have given it this title because as Israel's first king, Saul showed great promise. After his anointing as king by Samuel and confirmation by the people, Saul mobilized the nation to defeat one of Israel's fearsome enemies, the Ammonites. Saul even resisted the temptation to punish those among his own people who originally opposed his coronation, and spared their lives giving glory to God instead.

We left the story at the point where the people were reaffirming their allegiance to Saul before God with prayer and sacrifice. This heady time would soon give way to darker periods as Saul would begin his slow descent into madness and loss.

Early Decline

When we look at Saul's actions and decisions as king, we begin to recognize a number of patterns that led to his downfall.

1. A Pattern of Disobedience — I Samuel 13

1 Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, 2 Saul chose for himself three thousand men of Israel. Two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in the mountains of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin. The rest of the people he sent away, every man to his tent. 3 And Jonathan attacked the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, "Let the Hebrews hear!" 4 Now all Israel heard it said that Saul had attacked a garrison of the Philistines, and that Israel had also become an abomination to the Philistines. And the people were called together to Saul at Gilgal.
- I Samuel 13:1-4

The Philistines were the Jewish nation's most powerful enemy. In the passage above we read that Jonathan, Saul's son and heir to the throne, mounts a foolish attack on a garrison of Philistine soldiers and wins this minor skirmish. This provokes an all-out war with the mighty Philistines, and Saul (without any guidance or plan) calls on the Israelites to prepare for war.

5 Then the Philistines gathered together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude. And they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth Aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger (for the people were distressed), then the people hid in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits. 7 And some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. As for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. 8 Then he waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him.

Very quickly the Jewish army sees that it is outnumbered and outmatched. Saul, as he waits upon Samuel to seek God's help and blessings, notes that his forces are beginning to desert him.

9 So Saul said, "Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me." And he offered the burnt offering. 10 Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him. 11 And Samuel said, "What have you done?" Saul said, "When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, 12 then I said, 'The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.' Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering." 13 And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you."

Afraid that he would lose his following, Saul disobeys Samuel (who told him to wait) and offers the sacrifice himself. Aside from Samuel's instruction, the fact that Saul was not a priest prohibited him from performing this act. Upon his arrival, Samuel rebukes Saul and tells him that because of his disobedience God would remove the kingdom from him and give it to one who would obey Him.

This pattern of disobedience to God's commands would continue throughout Saul's lifetime, and he would never truly repent of it.

Another pattern evident in Saul's life and rule was...

2. A Pattern of Instability — I Samuel 14

In chapter 14, we see what happens after the disaster of the sacrifice offered by Saul instead of Samuel. Jonathan goes ahead and attacks a small contingency of Philistine soldiers and succeeds in winning another small victory. This sudden and unexpected defeat demoralizes the entire Philistine army to the point where they become afraid, vulnerable and ready to retreat. One of the reasons for this was that there were no swords or weapons in Israel at that time since the Philistines controlled the making and repair of iron-based tools and instruments of war. Jonathan and a few others were the only ones who possessed their own armor, so a defeat against an enemy that supposedly had no weapons rattled the Philistines to the point of panic.

…The sad part…

While this was going on, Saul, undecided about what to do, made a foolish oath forbidding his people to eat until a complete victory was in hand; once again using a spiritual thing (fasting) to achieve a strictly physical end (military victory). This fast weakened the people and led to several problems:

  • When the Philistines were demoralized and vulnerable, the Jews could not take advantage of their opponents' weakness. They were too faint from hunger to capitalize on their advantage.
  • The people were so hungry that when they took the spoil left behind by the enemy that ran away, they ate the blood of the animals and disobeyed God in the process (food laws prohibited them from eating the blood of animals).
  • Jonathan, who did not know about the oath to fast, ate in ignorance and had to be saved by the will of the people, lest he be executed by his own father.

In this episode, Saul showed how unstable his character was becoming. He was king, but he was supposed to be serving by the will and guidance of God through the prophet Samuel. He showed his irreverence and arrogance when he offered a sacrifice in disobedience and committed his nation to a foolish oath. Both actions done without the guidance of the prophet or the approval of God. He didn't follow through to a complete victory against the Philistines and, as a consequence, had to fight them repeatedly in the years to come.

Yet, despite this pattern of instability, God continued to give Saul success in his other military campaigns. We can draw several lessons from this episode:

  • God can use you despite your flaws.
  • Even under God's grace, you do suffer the consequences of your mistakes.
  • Uncorrected sins and weaknesses tend to repeat themselves and grow stronger and more pervasive with time.

This last lesson was especially true in Saul's life:

3. A Pattern of Open Rebellion — I Samuel 15

In chapter 15 we read about Saul's increasing disregard for the commands of God.

After their partial defeat, the Philistines remain quiet leaving the Israelites alone for the time being. At this point, Samuel comes to Saul with a message from God to go and destroy one of Israel's old enemies, the Amalekites (a nation that had caused problems for the Jews while they wandered in the desert during the time of Moses). Samuel specifically instructs Saul to completely wipe out the entire nation:

3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

No trace of the Amalekites was to remain because God was judging them for their pagan religion and opposition to His people. Their time of judgment had come. In response to Samuel's instruction Saul raises an army and defeats the people militarily, but he does not do exactly as God commands. He keeps the king of the Amalekites alive and spares the best of the flocks of sheep and oxen. What makes matters worse is that when he is confronted with the evidence of his disobedience by Samuel, Saul refuses to acknowledge his sin.

20 And Saul said to Samuel, "But I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites."

Note that in the defense of his actions Saul rewords the command of God to make it comply to his actions. God had originally commanded him to destroy all of the Amalekites, including the king.

24 Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice."

Note also that he blames the people for his sin. He acknowledges that his action was wrong, but it was the people who pressured him into doing it who are really to blame. He refuses to accept responsibility for his actions.

30 Then he said, "I have sinned; yet honor me now, please, before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord your God."

Saul expresses sorrow, but only for the consequences of his sin. He has lost the respect of the people, this is his fear. Samuel pierces his denials and defenses with the truth about what his sins really are in verse 23.

23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.

A. Rebellion is divination, in that you rely on some other source of power (in his case self/others/or seek out spirits, etc.) instead of God's power. It is the allegiance to power from below rather than power from above. Rebellion is the attempt to overthrow the balance and order of God's power and institute another power in His place.

B. Stubbornness — Samuel equates this characteristic to the sins of idolatry and iniquity. It is a direct refusal to submit to God's authority.

  • Idolatry when done in ignorance.
  • Iniquity when done despite knowing the truth.

C. Rejection — Refusing to follow the path that God has laid out for you in His word is essentially the rejection of God. Here Samuel lays out the final consequence of this which will be God rejecting you.

Saul had arrived at a point in his life where his arrogance made him sin without recognizing the consequences or nature of his sins. In the end, he did not see the price that his disobedience was costing him: not just the respect of the people, but the complete loss of God's favor and the privilege of serving Him as well as the loss of the kingdom for his son, Johnathan.

4. A Pattern of Fear — I Samuel 16

Disobedience led to instability which produced open rebellion and, in turn, created this intense paranoia in Saul. He was too proud to repent so he forged ahead without God's blessing. This was a sure recipe for depression and fear.

In chapter 16 we see that Saul is now violent and out of control. He threatens to kill any who oppose him. He has now become a ruler keeping his position by force and not by grace. He rules only because God allows him to do so, but he is far from God's will and purpose.

We also discover that he now begins to seek out secular things (like music - David's harp) to soothe his troubled soul rather than pouring out his heart in repentance to God. Saul has rebelled against the Lord and is attempting to rule without reference to God's will or direction.

In our next chapter we will see how this will lead to his final downfall.


Saul's tragic life is so full of important lessons for us today, even though we live in a much different culture and time:

Lesson #1 — Success is no guarantee against judgment

Saul continued to reign, continued to have the allegiance of the people, continued to win military battles, but this was not because God was pleased with him. It suited God's overall purpose to keep him there and to protect the nation, but Saul's judgment was coming.

This should help us to realize that we must not judge our standing with God based on how we feel or how successful we are. The basis for our judgment will be our obedience to His word (John 12:48).

Lesson #2 — Obedience is more important than ritual

In both the Old and New Testaments God has ordained certain rituals that express deeper meanings and truths:

  • The sacrificing of animals to represent the result of sin and need for atonement (Leviticus 4:35; 5:10).
  • Baptism in water to express removal of impurity and transition between the old and new life (Romans 6:3-5).
  • Communion to represent and remember the body and blood of Jesus offered for us (I Corinthians 11:23-26).

Rituals are important and central to our religion, but they are not the substance of our religion. Obedience to God, this is what our faith is about. This is the story that our rituals tell.

Some people think that performing the rituals of our faith in exact accordance to the Bible is what our religion is about. When we take this approach we eventually make the ritual our god and sacrifice our time, our life and our passion to its promotion and repetition. Rituals are important, but only in the sense that they represent our daily effort to obey God and follow His will for our lives.

Saul thought he would cover his disobedience with an elaborate and expensive sacrifice. He excused his disobedience by claiming that he kept the animals alive so he could offer sacrifice (ritual) to God. But God had told him to destroy them, not use them for sacrifice. Samuel cut to the heart of the matter when he said in chapter 15:

22 So Samuel said: "Has the Lord 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 heed than the fat of rams.

Lesson #3 — There is always hope

Even after Saul disobeyed the first time in the matter of the sacrifice, God gave him another chance with the military campaign against the Amalekites. Who knows if God would have spared Saul if he would have done right the second time around? God kept him alive and on the throne for 32 years (I Samuel 13:1) and at any time Saul could have repented, could have asked God to re-direct his way, but he didn't.

Many times it is not our sins that defeat us, it is our refusal to ask God for help to change that does us in. He who made the moon and stars, can He not change a man's heart? Saul did not avail himself of God's mercy, not because the mercy was not there, he just did not ask for it.

There is always hope despite our failures. The God of hope, the Lord of love, the Father of mercy wants to give us another chance, we simply have to ask in humble obedience.

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