When Israel was still a relatively young nation, the people began to be discontent with their lack of a human leader. Part of that came from envy of other nations, but there was also a belief that having a human king would make Israel look stronger to potential enemies. The elders brought this request to the prophet Samuel.
“They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king’” (1 Samuel 8:5-7).
Even after Samuel prayed and delivered a strong caution from the Lord, the Israelites insisted on getting a ruler from among them.
“We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles. When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king’” (1 Samuel 8:19-22).
God knew this plan was based on wrong motives and would lead to trouble, but allowed Saul to be given charge over Israel. This king led the people in military victories, but also showed lapses in his moral and spiritual life. The account of his reign contains lessons for all of us about the importance of keeping our eyes, and hearts, fixed on God.
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Who Was King Saul?
1 Samuel 9 introduces Saul, at this point still living and working in his father’s household. Saul was the son of Kish, a Benjamite from, as Saul says, “the smallest of the tribes of Israel,” and the least of those clans (1 Samuel 9:21). Physically, he was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2).
Unknown to him, the Israelites had been asking God to give them a human king, like the other nations around them. When the prophet Samuel prayed about this to the Lord, the answer came quickly.
“Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights” (1 Samuel 8:9).
Samuel spoke the warning to the people about how a king would take their sons to be warriors, and their daughters to be workers in the royal household. A king would also use their choicest crops and livestock himself, and make them his slaves. Still, the Israelites demanded to have a king. God relented, and chose Saul.
On a search for missing donkeys, Saul encountered the prophet, who had been sent to meet him. They ate together, and the next day Samuel told him he was to be king and anointed him with oil. Samuel instructed Saul to leave that town and to join up with a group of prophets in Gibeah for a time of worship. There, Saul was touched by God’s Spirit and prophesied with them. He then returned home to wait for him.
Seven days later, Samuel gathered the nation at Mizbah. He announced that according to their demands, God would be giving them a king. He singled out the tribe of Benjamin, then the clan of Kish, then Saul individually as the chosen king.
Saul had tried to hide among some nearby supplies. But God revealed him, and the young man was presented to the assembly. Saul quickly became a leader, rescuing men at Jabesh Gilead, and called the people to worship the Lord for their success. He was then confirmed as king in his home of Gilgal. (1 Samuel 11).
The reign of King Saul lasted 42 years. Much of that time Israel was at war, with countries including Philistia, Moab, Edom and Amalek. Saul and his son Jonathan waged many successful campaigns with a volunteer army against each of them.
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Saul and David
Saul’s authority over Israel stayed mostly in the military realm. He spent little time on internal affairs, and was not engaged in matters of faith. In fact, Saul showed disobedience toward God publicly in at least two instances:
1. He offered up burnt and fellowship offerings on the battlefield when he was supposed to wait for the prophet Samuel to do the ritual (1 Samuel 13).
2. He refused to destroy Amalek as God commanded him to (1 Samuel 15).
These wrong decisions led to a fracture in Saul’s relationship with his Lord and also with Samuel. As time went on, this division led the king to bouts of depression. Music seemed to soothe him, and David was brought into the court because he could play lute and sing songs that would soothe Saul.
David became a trusted member of Saul’s court and later served in his army. As David grew in status, the king became jealous when the young man’s fame started to overshadow his own. But instead of humbly seeking God’s help to overcome his strong emotions, Saul indulged in and acted on them.
Saul tried to turn his son and daughter against David, which failed. Eventually, he waged an all-out attempt on David’s life, chasing him to the borders of Israel.
What Happened to Saul?
Saul’s acts of disobedience caused the Lord to take away his kingship. Samuel told him that because of his foolish choices, Saul would be replaced on the throne. His final days were filled with the obsessive hunt for David, as well as other manic and destructive behavior.
As the Philistines mounted new attacks on the nation, Saul desperately ordered a diviner to call up the ghost of Samuel. Saul was told that the Israelite army would be defeated. The next day, the words of Samuel came to pass, and Saul and his son Jonathan were both killed during the battle.
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4 Lessons from the Rise and Fall of King Saul
1. God judges us by our hearts, not our outward appearance
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
The Israelites wanted a man for a king, and Saul certainly looked the part - physically strong and handsome. In time, however, his faulty inner thoughts and attitudes began to show on the outside as well. God wasn’t surprised, though, and had his replacement in mind.
2. God wants us to have confidence in Him, not pride in ourselves
“That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble’” (James 4:6).
Saul let his position as king fill him up with an inflated sense of self-importance. Eventually, he even assumed that he was qualified to take on duties meant for the priests. The Lord saw each overstep, and rebuked him through Samuel.
3. God calls us to follow His Will, not our own
“So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do…” (1 Kings 2:2-3).
Though Saul was chosen to be the Israelites’ earthly king, the Lord was still the highest authority for the nation. He expected Saul to be the model of Godly submission and obedience, and grieved when Saul didn’t accept that role.
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4. God calls us to follow His commands faithfully, not selectively
“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2).
Saul was blessed with gifts such as confidence and passion. But pride, insecurity and impatience in certain moments led him to disregard what he knew was right, and to then try and defend himself. Because his heart was not fully given to God, he lost his position and favor.
The story of King Saul is really a cautionary tale that applies to every believer, since we all have influence on those around us. His kingship reminds us that the best earthly leaders aren’t meant to take the place of God, but to point people to the true Lord of their lives.
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Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship based on the writings of King David. Heather's blog, Worship Walk Ministries, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. A native New Englander, Heather is settling into her home in the South, trying out local foods and watching for the alligators that live nearby! You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com