King Saul

On the Edge of Greatness - Part 3

This final lesson traces King Saul's sad decline into madness and ignoble death at the hands of the enemy he was originally sent to defeat.
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We are studying the life of King Saul as a way to learn what not to do with our own lives and how to avoid wasting our potential for spiritual greatness as he did. We've seen how God chose him to be king and how, at the very beginning, he showed great promise as a leader of God's people. In the previous chapter we also reviewed his unfortunate decline in favor with God and the people as four patterns of destructive behavior emerged:

1. A pattern of disobedience

  • He wouldn't do things exactly as God wanted him to.

2. A pattern of instability

  • He became flighty and foolish in his decision-making because he didn't seek God's counsel.

3. A pattern of open rebellion

  • He refused to take responsibility for his actions, blaming others and rejecting God's discipline.

4. A pattern of fear

  • The early stages of insanity set in as Saul becomes paranoid about his position, seeing everything as a threat.

This fear so immobilizes Saul that he is no longer able to lead effectively. It is at this moment in his life that David steps into the picture.

Saul and David — I Samuel 16-17

In the midst of Saul's paranoia God tells Samuel, the prophet, to go and anoint a new king. In I Samuel 16, Samuel is led by God to a man called Jesse and his family of eight sons. After meeting seven of Jesse's sons, God instructs Samuel to anoint the eighth and youngest son, David, to become the next king of Israel. The Bible says that from this day forward the Spirit of God was with David and he grew in strength and wisdom.

The story now switches back to King Saul and we see his mental state deteriorating quickly. Desperate to soothe his nerves, Saul asks his men to find a good musician to play for him. In a providential coincidence they recommend David, son of Jesse, and with the king's permission, bring David to serve Saul as court musician. At this point, even though he has been anointed by Samuel, David is dividing his time between tending sheep for his father and occasionally providing music to comfort the troubled king.

There is calm for a period, but a very real threat from the Philistines is brewing that would thrust David into the spotlight and make him Saul's enemy and target for many years.

The Alliance and the Annihilation — I Samuel 17-20

Saul and David begin as allies when the nation is threatened by Goliath and the Philistines. This is the well-known story where David single-handedly kills the giant and saves the Israelite army from shame and loss. What we realize, because of our study of Saul, is that the reason the Jews were in such trouble was the pathetic state of fear and conflict that their king was in. Saul still believed in the presence of God, but no longer relied on God's saving power. He trusted in military might, and because of this was paralyzed by fear and had poor judgment.

We know that David won the battle against Goliath, the Philistine champion, and because of this he also won the hearts of the people. Saul took him into his family and his court, but eventually would grow jealous of David's success and potential threat to the throne. (He didn't realize that God had already chosen David to succeed him.) Later on, we see Saul try to kill David or send him on suicide missions in order to get rid of him, but David survives and grows stronger.

One of David's strongest allies and friends during this time is Saul's son, Jonathan. Despite his father's murderous plots against David, a beautiful friendship develops between the young prince and the heir to the throne. So united are they that Jonathan actually defends David to Saul. So demented is Saul that he even attacks his own son because of his defense of David. In the end, Jonathan protects David but even this is not enough to keep the future king safe from Saul's jealous rage.

Saul's Total Madness — I Samuel 21-24

By the time we get to chapter 21, Saul is completely out of control. He is continually focused on finding David and destroying him. His reasoning is that if David becomes king (by popular acclaim) his son Jonathan will lose the throne. Of course, he doesn't realize that it is not David's popularity with the people that will gain him the crown, it is God's anointing that will put him on the throne, and he already has this! Saul's constant campaign against him is forcing David to continually be on the move, to collect an army loyal to him, to learn about military strategy, diplomacy, management, all done while on the run.

In chapter 21 we read of an episode where David entered a town to search for food for himself and his men. The only food available at this place was the "showbread" that the priests ate after a sacrifice was made. Since there was nothing else available David took this and continued his journey. Saul found out that the priests in this town had provided David with food and, as retaliation for an imagined act of treason, massacred all of the priests serving the Lord there. This was his most despicable act. It was so bad that even some of Saul's men refused to carry out the execution order when it was first given. By this point Saul had truly become mad, killing not only his so-called enemies, but also murdering the servants of the Lord. After this event, Saul steps up his relentless pursuit of David and seeks the aid of his countrymen in tracking him down. He is out of control and completely fixated on destroying David. Thankfully, God thwarts Saul's campaign by sending the Philistines to attack once again. This diverts Saul's attention from David for a while as he leads the troops against this old enemy.

In chapter 24 there is a poignant moment where David comes into contact with Saul without Saul's awareness. Saul is relieving himself in a cave where David happens to be hiding with his men. David could easily kill the king but chooses to spare his life. After their encounter, David (from a distance) shows Saul a piece of his cloak that he had secretly cut away in the darkness of the cave. This he did to demonstrate how close he had been to him and how easily he could have killed him.

Saul has a moment of clarity and recognizes that David is truly innocent and without evil intentions towards him, and he tells him so. Unfortunately, this softening is short lived and his mad and jealous self returns in short order. Seizing the opportunity, he takes advantage of David's goodness by extracting a promise from him not to harm his family in the future. The evidence of David's true intentions and character are before him, but Saul reverts to his old fears quickly renewing his vow to kill David in a foolish attempt to hold on to a crown that he has lost long ago.

Final Stages — I Samuel 25-31

In chapter 26 we again read of an opportunity that David has to kill Saul and end his problems, but he refrains from doing so out of respect for the role of the king anointed by God. In this instance, Saul again acknowledges that he is wrong, blesses David and actually prophecies concerning his future success. In this we see God continually working in both men's lives: David, through God's help, has an opportunity to take matters into his own hands but he doesn't. This is a great example of God allowing someone to choose a lesser opportunity, a "plan B" solution for their lives, but refusing it in order to wait on God's blessing and full will to be done. Saul, on the other hand, is granted a reprieve, a chance to repent and change, which he does for the moment but soon falls back. Repentance would have him hand the kingdom over to David, then he would gain peace of mind and entry into the true kingdom in the process. Unfortunately, he exchanged his soul for a kingdom that really wasn't his to hold on to anymore.

As we move into chapter 28 the Philistines are attacking once again and now Saul has no one to help.

  • Not David, who at least helped him fight this common enemy.
  • Not Samuel, who provided guidance in the past (he has died).

Saul is now mortally afraid and without a plan, so he turns to a "medium" or witch for advice which is against the law and he knew it! He is as low morally as he can go. Even though she is a medium, God uses this woman to speak to the king through the voice of Samuel. God tells Saul why he has failed and what will happen to him the next day. Even here God reaches out to Saul, but he refuses to repent and cast himself on God's mercy.

In chapters 30 and 31 we see a final contrast between Saul and David as David goes forward and defeats the Amalekites while Saul and Jonathan are both killed in their battle against Israel's other enemy, the Philistines. Saul is wounded and commits suicide rather than be taken prisoner, but right until the end there is no call out to God for help or forgiveness. His death is not noble in that he falls on his own sword in defeat and his body is desecrated by the enemy (head cut off and body hung on a wall for display). Soon after, however, Saul's body is recovered by his men, cremated and buried under a tree. Certainly not a dignified way for a Jewish king to be buried.

Even though his life was a failure and his death dishonorable, David eulogizes him and his son after their death (II Samuel 1). What is interesting in his eulogy is not what is said, it is what is left unsaid:

David says that Saul was:

  • A handsome man
  • A good soldier
  • A king who brought prosperity
  • He will be missed

But David didn't say that:

  • He was a man of God
  • He was a man of faith
  • He was a man of honor

When you compare what was said about Saul to what later was said about David:

  • That he was God's son
  • That he was God's servant
  • That he was God's friend

You realize that Saul had a chance at greatness but never truly arrived at the level that his successor, David, finally achieved.


As we complete this brief study of Saul's life and rule, I'd like to draw a couple of general lessons that we can all apply:

1. Greatness can only be achieved on God's terms, not ours

In order to be successful in God's eyes, we must do things according to God's commands and for His purpose. In the world we celebrate rebels, those who break all the rules and defy authority but we can't impress God with this type of behavior. He wants the complete opposite, a person who is hungry to do what is right, a person who yearns to know and do His will, not our will.

Saul tried to reign and be a great king according to his own terms, and he failed miserably. A person's stature with God is directly proportionate to his/her obedience to God's will. Don't misunderstand me here, we are saved by faith and faith is what God wants from us, but faith is expressed through our attempt to do God's will. To be a great person of faith one must be a great person of obedience.

2. The wage of sin is death

Paul explains in Romans 6:23 that the end result of sin in our lives is death. We need to understand that death isn't simply the final separation of the soul from the body. Death has many forms, all of which eventually culminate in the separation of the body and spirit. We see the face of death:

  • In war, hatred and violence
  • In laziness and despair
  • In dishonesty and immorality
  • In pride, foolishness and disbelief
  • In sorrow, pain and loss

These and so many others are the effect of death on our lives, and sin is the root cause of all. Saul never weighed the consequences of his sins (he was arrogant and foolish) and these brought failure, fear and ultimately led to his death. If we learn anything from Saul, we should learn that there are always consequences for our sins, always. This should make us think twice before we knowingly disobey or ignore the Lord's commands.

3. God wants to save us

Look at all the times God reached out to Saul in order to save him.

  • Chances to do better
  • Chances to reconcile with David
  • Chances to repent and start over

Saul ignored or rejected every opportunity set before him by God. God treats us the same way; we also have many chances to do better, start over, make things right:

  • Every time your conscience twinges, God is calling you.
  • Every time you are convicted by something in the Bible, God is calling you.
  • Every time you attend services, God is calling you in the "invitation."

Every day we have ample opportunity from God to be saved, to be restored, to deepen our commitment to Jesus Christ. The same God who reached out to Saul reaches out to us today (because He loves us and wants to save us).

We've learned a valuable lesson if, unlike Saul, we respond to God in allowing Him to save us, correct us and direct us to the greatness He wants for each of us.

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