Biblical Questions

Reflections on the First King of Israel: Why Saul?

In what follows are some personal reflections that I have been having about Saul 1st king of Israel. These thoughts are the results of my own personal study. Rereading through the Book of Judges and the time of Samuel and Saul I have noticed a recurring pattern that seems strikingly familiar with our own period in history. However, the question I would like to investigate today is whether or not Saul and his family line have remained as king over Israel? Wisdom would seem to dictate that in preparation of attempting to answer this question we need to look at a few things first, so that we might discern the true intent of his kingship.

Where to start?

Normally, the argument starts with God’s choosing of Saul as king (cf. 1Sam 9.16; 10.1). The reasoning then ensues that if God chooses Saul it must have been for a good reason. In so far as that goes, I agree. God does pick Saul for a good reason. I would even argue that it is a multilayered reason—i.e. for more than one purpose. But from this thought of God choosing Saul as king for good we ought to immediately springboard to the next question: “For who’s good, God or man?”

 Well, how you go about answering that question depends, doesn’t it? If your theology is man-centered, then I believe it is natural to immediately assume “for man’s benefit.” Certainly, one could make the case that God does good things that benefit man.

Both of the texts referenced above highlight this, for it is said that the Lord God “anointed [Saul] to be prince over [God’s] people Israel…[to] save them from the hand of the Philistines…[and] surrounding enemies. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me” (1Sam 9.16; 10.1; co-joined for clarity).[i] However, that is only one layer of the truth as to why Saul was chosen as king over Israel…there are others.

A Useful Reminder…

What is helpful to remember at this point is that God does all things, brings all things about, for His namesake. His glory is always at the forefront of His choice of action:

“For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isa 48.11).[ii]

God does what He does in history for His glory, for the majesty of His great and holy name, though there is no doubt that God’s people (even those who are not His) benefit from His decreed purpose.

What we need to consider then at the forefront is that God chose Saul for His own purposes, though the people were (for a time) beneficiaries of this action. “But, how can we know this?” you ask. Great question, glad you asked it.

Strangely enough, the answer begins to unfold as we look at how God views Israel’s request for a king—it is evil. The prophet Samuel’s reaction first notifies us that something is wrong. The act displeased him and he immediately brought the thing before the Lord (1Sam 8.6). We then find confirmation that the request was ill motivated and viewed negatively by the Lord when He says to Samuel,

“Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you” (1Sam 8.7-8; emphasis added).

A short while later, God then says to the people through His prophet:

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought [you] up…and I delivered you…from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ (1Sam 10.18-19).

The Reason it was Evil…

But the question that follows is “Why is this evil? Why was this a sin?” And the astute student of Scripture rightly asks, “Didn’t God give them permission in the past to make this request?” Again, I am glad you are following along and paying attention; great question!

It is true that in Deuteronomy 17 we find God’s provision of a request for kingship in Israel. The text reads,

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose” (Deut 17.14-15).

In the verses that follow the reader is provided with the necessary criteria of the type of king who will serve (should serve). Those regulations focused on an individual that would willingly submit to the edicts of the Lord in terms of power, family life, and wealth (vv. 16-17). This would-be king would desire to know, abide and live according to God’s revealed will—i.e. His Word (vv. 18-20). This type of king would experience longevity of his dominion for he and his offspring (v. 20).

The problem with Israel’s seeking of a king at the time of Samuel was multifaceted. In and of itself the request was not wrong, but the manner in which they sought it and the motive that drove it were.

First, the people did not seek the Lord God’s will in the request. His will was not given consideration. They wanted Samuel to “appoint for [them] a king to judge [them] like all the nations” (1Sam 8.5; italics added). When they were warned against taking this course—for it would invite sorrow into their lives as a consequence—they refused to listen saying to Samuel, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1Sam 8.19-20; italics added).

History Provides Excellent Lessons…

Israel was unique at that time in that they did not have a king over them. There is an implicit desire here to make a name for themselves—that is to say the request is shaded in pride. Historically, the Lord God had been their king; He had fought their battles. If they should have learned anything from their past, it is that kings are tyrants. But the attitude expressed at this time is no different than that first generation of Hebrews who wanted to return to Egypt; rather than serve the Lord in the wilderness.

I think that it is wise for the reader to reflect on the period of the Judges as well. The book of Judges repeats the theme “In those days there was no king in Israel…” (Judg 17.5a; cf. 18.1; 19.1; 21.25a). But as I said earlier God was their king (cf. 1Sam 12.12). However, when you reject the Lord as King over you what then ensues is exactly what we find during the period of Judges, “…everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17.5b; 21.25b).

The result this mindset earned the people, is explained to the reader as a preface to what follows in the book of Judges. The people rejected God “and served the Baals” (Judg 2.11). Since they whored “after other gods, from among the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them…the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies…” (Judg 2.12b, 14). In other words, they were enslaved to foreign kings.

Ironically though, this is the model of the other “nations” that they wanted to imitate. So, that’s the first problem with the demand of Israel for a king. The second is closely tied to it, the type of king they were looking for was appealing by man’s standards not God’s.[iii]

God through Moses told the people what kind of king they should look for, “a man who desired to follow in His ways” (cf. Deut 17.16-20). Because they refused to listen to the Lord, He gave them a king that seemed “right in [their] own eyes.” Saul, son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin certainly had a kingly stature being a head taller than the rest of his people, but there are instances of a flawed character if you are observant of the details in the text. Perhaps we shall look at them in the future, but I want to try and stay on task.

Why did God choose Saul?

I see a strong similarity between what God did in the book of Judges, with what He does now in the selection of Saul as King.

In the one sense, we might say that God sent the people exactly what they wanted; a king like the rest of the nations. In another sense, we could also say that God raised Saul up to fight as a deliverer from foreign enemies. I believe both are correct assessments.

A third, and possibly neglected reason, is that God was setting up a comparison between two different types of kings: one that neglected His Word and really only worshipped himself as we see Saul doing in the text of Samuel, and another that desired to live according to God’s will (i.e. a man after His own heart). Granted, the application of that desire was wanting in David, but the fact of the matter is that it was there.

The same cannot be said of Saul, son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Saul was not a godly man. And while we might point to period of his life where he seemed to profess belief, in the end the finally tally of his life says otherwise.

“So, is what you are saying Kris is that Saul was not God’s man?” you ask.

Precisely.

“But, what about God seeming to promise that had Saul been obedient, God would have preserved his kingship?”

God does make the following promise to Israel and Saul,

“If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God it will be well. But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king” (1Sam 12.14-15).

These conditional promises are just that, conditional. Depending upon the condition that is met will determine the outcome that is meted out.

Some will look at this promise by the Lord and then compare that with what transpires in 1Sam 15 where God is said to “regret” that He made Saul king (1Sam 15.11) as proof that Saul “could have continued as king” had he been obedient. To be sure, his disobedience led to his rejection as king (see 1Sam 15.22-23, 26), and God promised to rip the kingdom from him and give it to another that was Saul’s better (1Sam 15.28; cf. 1Sam 28.17-18), but it was never God’s intention for Saul or his line to remain as king.

Saul was not God’s choice, Saul was the choice the people truly desired in rejecting God, and God handed them over to their desires.

“But what if Saul had obeyed the Lord’s commands? Would he have remained as king?” If the conditions of obedience were met, sure. But Saul sought everyone but God in his thinking and acting. He feared the people, not the Lord. He idolized himself, not the Lord. He was filled with jealousy and hatred and a conniver of malicious things. He sought counsel from a witch, rather than the Lord. In the end he took his own life, rather than give it to the Lord.

So, while it might be said that if Saul had met the conditions that God had outlined (If, then) God would had blessed him. Saul would never meet the positive conditions necessary to be blessed by the Lord.

And the final reason is this…

The tribe of Benjamin is called a ravenous wolf that devours his enemies and plunders them (Gen 49.27). Something we witness in the closing chapters of Judges, a precursor of the type of heart we witness in Saul.  Whereas, the tribe of Judah is identified as a lion’s cub who rules his people from whom “the scepter shall not depart…nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49.8-10).

The line of Judah was always God’s choice, from the line of David a shoot would spring forth, who would walk in the ways of his father with a heart after God’s own heart. Where David failed, the son would not, for His Name is Jesus the perfect representation of the heavenly Father (Heb 1.3), the redeemer (Gal 3.3) and liberator of His people (1Pet 1.18-21), the true Lion that devours His prey and is always victorious (Rev 5.5; cf. Isa 11.1; Jer 23.5-6; Rom 15.12) .

ENDNOTES:

[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

[ii] Also see 2Kgs 20.6; Isa 37.35 where God delivers Hezekiah and Jerusalem for His own name sake; Ezek 36.22 speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out on His people, to cleanse them from sin, to give them a new heart and write His Law upon their heart for His sake, not theirs; Deut 7.7-8; 9.5 where God’s choosing of Israel from amongst the nations, even the giving them of the land was done for His name sake, not theirs; Dan 9.17-19 where Daniel’s prayer acknowledges that God fulfills His goodness towards His own not for their sake, but His own.

[iii] This attitude, which was acclimated from the surrounding culture(s), had a negative effect on even God’s prophet Samuel which you can read about in 1Sam 16:6-7.

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