II. The Rise and Fall of King Saul (1 Samuel 9:1–15:35)
II. The Rise and Fall of King Saul (9:1–15:35)
A. Saul’s Anointing and Early Successes (9:1–12:25)
9:1-2 God set about the work of controlling the choice of king and the circumstances of his anointing. Kish was a prominent man of Benjamin’s tribe (9:1). Thus, he was a man of leadership and valor. So, Saul came from good stock. He was also impressive and a head taller than anyone else (9:2). These are the kinds of qualities that would inspire confidence in the people. But, as things would turn out, they were all that Saul had going for him. God was no doubt giving them the kind of king they wanted—someone who looked the part. But later, after the people saw the disaster that was King Saul, God would choose a king for them whose heart was right for the job (16:7).
9:3-6 God providentially arranged the first meeting between Saul and Samuel. The circumstances were fairly mundane. Some of Kish’s donkeys were lost, so he sent his son Saul and some of the servants to find them (9:3). That proved to be a long and futile effort that eventually took the search party to Zuph in the hill country of Ephraim near Samuel’s hometown of Ramah (9:4-5). Saul wanted to give up the search and go home (9:5). But, one of the servants realized that the Lord’s prophet might be able to tell them where to find the lost animals (9:6).
9:7-10 Apparently, it was customary to bring a gift when seeking a prophet’s advice, and the servant just happened to have a little silver on him (9:7-8). So, the search party switched gears to find the prophet, or seer, as he was called (9:9-10).
9:11-17 Drama is added to the narrative as Saul and his men learned that Samuel was about to leave for a sacrifice at the high place outside of town (9:11-12). In God’s sovereign timing, Samuel and Saul met on the road (9:14). Samuel knew immediately that this tall stranger was the future king of Israel because the Lord had revealed to him the day before how their meeting would take place (9:15-17). God’s specific assignment for Saul was to save his people from the Philistines who were oppressing them (9:16).
Saul would have early success against the Philistines (14:47), but he would cower in fear with the rest of his army when Goliath defied Israel (17:11). And, in the end, after God had rejected Saul and his life fell apart, he died ingloriously at the hands of the Philistines and brought his family and nation down with him (31:1-10).
9:18-27 Though Saul was still looking for his father’s donkeys, Samuel had the kingship of Israel on his mind. His cryptic statement that Saul was the one whom all Israel desired caught Saul completely off guard (9:20). He responded that his family’s status hardly qualified him for such an honor (9:21). Nevertheless, Samuel made Saul the guest of honor at the banquet held in connection with the worship at the high place. Seating Saul at the head of the thirty or so men in attendance probably was a way of getting Saul’s name and face out there; it signaled he was a person to notice (9:22). After the meal, Samuel took Saul back to his home in Ramah (9:23-27).
10:1-9 The prophet privately anointed Saul as the ruler over Israel (10:1). And, to confirm for Saul that he was God’s choice, Samuel predicted three signs that Saul would see fulfilled that same day (10:2-8). When Saul turned around to leave . . ., God changed his heart, and all the signs came about that day (10:9). The expression “God changed his heart” could refer to the Holy Spirit coming upon Saul in power to accomplish his kingship, just as the Spirit came upon other leaders in the Old Testament for specific purposes.
10:10-16 One evidence of God’s power on Saul was his ability to prophesy with a group of prophets he encountered, surprising all those who knew him (10:10-11). Their questions were an expression of amazement that Saul, of all people, was now exercising the prophetic gift (10:11-12). When Saul got home, his uncle questioned him about where he had been and what Samuel had said, but Saul said nothing about the kingship, a curious omission (10:14-16).
10:17-19 When the time came for Saul’s public presentation and anointing as king, Samuel called all of Israel together at Mizpah (10:17), the place where God had brought about such a great and supernatural victory over the Philistines (see 1 Sam 7:2-13). Samuel began the proceedings in a solemn way, reminding the people of the evil nature of their request for a king. Such a demand was actually a rejection of the Lord who had saved them from their enemies (10:18-19). Nevertheless, God was gracious and did not bring retribution on them for their sin. Instead, as time would reveal, because the people were not wholly devoted to him, God was giving them a king who would be not wholly devoted to him, either.
10:20-24 To make sure there could be no doubt about God’s choice, Samuel brought all the tribes and clans forward. Samuel worked his way down to smaller and smaller groups—probably by casting lots (see Josh 7:16-18)—until Saul son of Kish was selected (10:20-21). But Saul, as it turned out, was hiding (10:22)—apparently overcome with either modesty or fear of the glare of the cameras! When he was finally brought before the people, they saw that he stood a head taller than anyone else (10:23). He was just the kind of physically impressive king they wanted (10:24).
10:25-27 Samuel proclaimed to the people the rights of kingship and then wrote them on a scroll before sending everyone home (10:25). Saul had made a great first impression, but he would not ultimately measure up to God’s standards for a king. And, even before things began to unravel, Samuel suspected that the man he’d presented to Israel was not God’s best for his people.
11:1-3 Saul soon met the first test of his reign. Nahash the Ammonite and his army laid siege to Jabesh-gilead, located about twenty-five miles south of the Sea of Galilee (11:1). The townspeople were so ill-prepared to defend themselves that they agreed to Nahash’s humiliating and crippling treaty term to gouge out everyone’s right eye (11:1-2). Nahash was so confident that no one would come to rescue them that he agreed to give them a week to send out an SOS and await response (11:3).
11:4-6 Help would come in the person of Saul. Israel’s new king was out plowing, apparently having returned to his former life for the time being. But, when news of the siege at Jabesh-gilead reached his hometown of Gibeah, the people wept aloud (11:4). Saul found out what had happened and was suddenly empowered by the Spirit of God and his fierce anger (11:6).
11:7-11 Saul took extreme measures to rally Israel’s troops to march out against the Ammonites, and a large army responded in the face of Saul’s threat (11:7). He led the troops to the Ammonite camp and, using good military strategy, split them into three divisions. The defeat of the Ammonites was so complete that the few survivors were completely scattered—no two of them were left together (11:11).
A great victory over an enemy that had been menacing Israel solidified Saul’s position as king in the eyes of the people (see 8:20). And, according to Samuel’s speech in chapter 12 (see 12:12), that he’d dealt with Nahash, in particular, made Saul’s victory even more impressive.
11:12-13 The people were so taken with Saul that they wanted to execute his naysayers (11:12), maybe the same wicked men who had snubbed him at his coronation (see 10:27). But, Saul showed them grace, acknowledging that the Lord had provided deliverance (11:13). Unfortunately, this was the spiritual high point of Saul’s reign. Things would roll downhill.
11:14-15 Saul’s victory led the nation to convene at Gilgal (11:14-15), a historic site where the Israelites had first camped after entering the promised land during the conquest under Joshua (see Josh 5:10-12). The purpose of the meeting was two-fold: to confirm Saul as Israel’s king and to confirm the people’s commitment to him as such. Saul was confirmed in the Lord’s presence, and Israel rejoiced greatly (11:15).
The report here might make it seem that Samuel’s earlier distress at the people’s sinful demands had been laid to rest, as if all was now well in Israel. But, God’s decision to bless Saul as the leader of his people was an act of grace that did not cancel out Israel’s sin in seeking a king apart from God’s will and timing. Samuel would remind the people of this in his final address to the nation, yet he would also call them to obey and follow the Lord faithfully to enjoy his blessing under their chosen king. Unfortunately, Saul would prove unworthy of his high calling.
12:1-5 Following Saul’s victory and the people’s obvious enthusiasm for him, Samuel decided it was time for him to step aside and officially hand the reins of political leadership over to Saul. The Israelites were looking to Saul anyway, and Samuel was elderly by this time. Nevertheless, he had a crucial message to share before stepping out of the limelight—although he would continue to play a spiritual leadership role. What he said probably wasn’t something the Israelites would want to hear. They were, no doubt, feeling good and had perhaps forgotten about the circumstances of Saul’s choice and Samuel’s warning. It wasn’t the first time the Israelites had suffered from spiritual amnesia, nor would it be the last.
Samuel began his speech by reestablishing the credibility of his long ministry as Israel’s judge—an office in which honesty and integrity were essential. In closing the books on this part of his ministry, he wanted the record to show that his judgeship had been honest not only in the people’s eyes, but also before the Lord (12:3). Samuel put himself in the dock, confident that no one could prove a charge of corruption against him. (All spiritual leaders ought to be able to similarly point to their lives as being “above reproach” [1 Tim 3:2]).
12:6-7 Here, we learn why Samuel wanted to reassert his authority. He switched out of judge mode to speak as a prophet with a message from the Lord. The Israelites would experience God’s blessings if they lived righteously, and they would experience his judgment if they failed to obey. Samuel’s call to the people to present themselves was a reminder that they were before the Lord (12:7)—that is, they were in his presence, which meant they had no excuse for not hearing and heeding what Samuel was about to tell them. The great prophet began his message in a pattern that would become a familiar one to the later writing prophets. He gave a recap of God’s righteous acts (12:7) before outlining the forgetfulness and ingratitude of the people that led them back into the sins from which he had delivered them.
12:8-12 Samuel reviewed the history of the Lord’s dealings with Israel. He told of the exodus from Egypt and arrival in the promised land, where Israel forgot the Lord (12:8-9). This led to oppression by a series of enemies, a cry to the Lord for help, and relief through a series of heroic judges: Jerubbaal (Gideon), Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel himself (12:11). But, each rescue was followed by a relapse into sin, the latest of which was the demand for a king (12:12). This point may have taken some of the collective air out of the Israelites’ celebratory sails. They’d rejected their true king.
12:13-15 It seems Samuel also had a word of grace from the Lord, saying essentially, “What’s done is done, so let’s move forward” (12:13). The Lord was still their God, and he would not abandon his people. If they would fear the Lord, worship and obey him, and not rebel, then they and the king would be blessed (12:14). But, if they chose to disobey, God’s judgment would fall on them like a ton of bricks—just as their ancestors had experienced (12:15).
12:16-25 Samuel proposed a sign that would prove his words: a thunderstorm during the wheat harvest when rain was rare (12:17). The point of the miracle was to reinforce the sin the people had committed and, thus, the urgency of their need to repent and follow the Lord with all their hearts. The miracle occurred, and the people reacted with repentance (12:19)—just as their ancestors had confessed their sins, pledged their obedience, and cried out for God’s help in earlier days. Once again, Samuel promised God’s presence if his people would follow and obey him (12:20-22). Samuel also vowed his own faithfulness to continue to pray for them (12:23). Finally, he offered a word of blessing for obedience and judgment for disobedience—a judgment that would include an end to the monarchy (12:24-25).
B. Saul’s Decline and Rejection (13:1–15:35)
13:1-5 It didn’t take long for Saul’s personal and spiritual defects to manifest themselves, to his own destruction and Israel’s detriment. He was an impatient and impulsive person who made bad decisions under pressure and then tried to justify himself instead of admitting his wrongs.
As a new king, Saul would need a standing army to meet the military threats he would face—including the Philistines, who continued to be a pain. Saul’s son Jonathan, introduced here (13:2), was a brave soldier like his father and would eventually become David’s friend, protector, and advocate in Saul’s court. While Saul was mustering his troops, Jonathan pulled off a raid against a Philistine garrison that brought the huge Philistine army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore, to set up camp against Saul (13:3-5).
13:6-12 The Israelites got one look at the enemy horde and hid behind or under any rock they could find (13:6). Some even crossed the Jordan to the safety of the east side. Saul and his army had gathered at Gilgal, the site of their great earlier victory, but now they, too, were gripped with fear (13:7). Previously, Saul and Samuel had apparently agreed that the king would wait for Samuel to come and offer the appropriate sacrifices seeking the Lord’s help for victory (13:8). But, Saul got tired of waiting and sinned by usurping the priest’s role (13:9). Samuel arrived, took in the scene, and asked ominously, What have you done? (13:10).
Saul’s excuse sounded plausible, at least to him. He was a military commander with a deserting army, a massive enemy who might pounce on him at any moment, and a priest who was nowhere to be found on the last day of their agreed-on waiting period. Besides, Saul claimed, he really wanted God’s favor, so against his better judgment he’d forced himself to do what he knew he shouldn’t (13:11). In other words, Saul was clearly hoping that Samuel could see the tight spot he was in and understand. After all, Samuel was the one who was late.
13:13-15 Excuses didn’t work, and at this early stage of his reign, Saul forfeited his right to be Israel’s king (13:13). Here is an example of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. God had already made it abundantly clear that Saul was not his choice, and earlier biblical prophecy foretold that God’s king would come from the tribe of Judah (see Gen 49:8-10). But, Saul was still responsible for his actions and could have enjoyed God’s blessing on his reign. The writer wanted his readers to see how God was orchestrating circumstances under Saul to usher God’s chosen, covenantal ruler, a man after his own heart to the throne (13:14).
13:16-23 Saul’s response to his rejection is not recorded. He left to face the Philistine threat with only a handful of men (see 3:15), which is why the Philistines were successful in raids against the Israelites in three directions (13:16-18). Another reason for Philistine military superiority was their decision to rid Israel of blacksmiths, lest the Israelites make swords or spears (13:19). So, Saul’s army had little to work with (13:22).
14:1-3 Saul’s son Jonathan, who was armed, attempted another daring raid against a Philistine garrison (14:1). If successful, it could demoralize the enemy and swing the momentum Israel’s way despite the Philistines’ military superiority. Meanwhile, Saul was resting with his troops and a priest near his headquarters at Gibeah (14:2). The priest, named Ahijah, was wearing an ephod (14:3), a priestly garment housing the Urim and Thummim, which were objects used to determine God’s will in a specific situation (see Exod 28:6-30). Thus, it seems Saul was evidently waiting for some kind of divine guidance—or maybe he was just reluctant to go into battle with so few men.
14:4-14 It didn’t make much sense militarily to attack a garrison with only two men, but Jonathan’s attitude was right. The Philistines were uncircumcised men who were defying the armies of Israel’s savior, God (14:6). (David would say essentially the same about Goliath in the near future; see 17:26). Jonathan had confidence in God’s ability to deliver his people, so when his armor bearer said in effect, “I’m right behind you,” the attack was on (14:7). Jonathan devised a sign to determine the Lord’s will. And, when God clarified that he had his blessing, Jonathan and his armor bearer won a great victory (14:8-14).
14:15-23 The report of what Jonathan had just done (see 14:14), combined with terror spreading from God, threw the Philistines into such a panic that they scattered in every direction (14:15-16).
Back in camp, Saul started to seek divine guidance for his own next steps, but canceled that plan and took off after the fleeing enemy (14:18-22). As a result of Jonathan’s initiative, the Lord saved Israel that day (14:23).
14:24-30 The Israelite army pursued the Philistines so hard that day that Saul refused to let any of his exhausted troops stop to eat, putting a death curse on any man who so much as tasted the honey that was on the ground all around them (14:24-26). This was another of Saul’s foolish, impetuous actions that weakened his troops, just when they had their enemies on the run and needed all their strength. And, just as bad, Saul’s foolhardiness almost cost Jonathan his life.
Jonathan had not heard his father’s threat and did what a hungry warrior naturally would. He ate some of the honey and was immediately refreshed (14:27). One of the horrified soldiers told Jonathan what Saul had made the troops swear to, but Jonathan brushed off his father’s curse for the troublesome idea it was. It was bad military strategy. If Saul had let his troops eat and maintain their strength, he reasoned, their victory would have been even greater (14:28-30).
14:31-35 The consequences of Saul’s curse continued. As Israel’s army continued to defeat the Philistines, the exhausted troops began to eat animals from the plunder without draining the blood, a violation of the law of Moses (14:31-33). Saul had enough spiritual sense left to know that this would bring God’s disfavor, so he made a provision for proper butchering (14:33-35).
14:36-52 When Saul inquired of the Lord as to whether he should continue pursuing the Philistines, God did not answer him (14:37). Saul pursued the problem, and the Urim and Thummim revealed that Jonathan was the issue (14:38-42). Saul was ready to kill his son for disobeying his order (even though he hadn’t heard it until it was too late), but the people rescued him because of the great victory he had won for Israel with God’s help (14:42-45). Nothing more was said, and Saul did not go back into battle without God’s approval (14:46). His strategy during his reign was to attack and defeat kingdoms that posed a threat to Israel (14:47-48).
15:1-3 Whatever shred of credibility Saul’s kingship had crumbled with the next major event in chapter 15. Samuel relayed God’s instructions to attack the Amalekites and destroy them (15:2-3). If God’s enemies were ranked on a scale of how deeply they had offended him, the Amalekites would be high on that list. God had seen what they did to his people as they were coming out of Egypt (15:2; see Exod 17:8-16). God had promised at that time to eventually “blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven” (Exod 17:14). So, God appointed Saul to complete the Amalekites’ destruction, even down to their animals.
15:4-9 Saul gave the Kenites, a nomadic people living near the Amalekites, a chance to escape because they had been kind to the Israelites during the exodus (15:6). They were also the people of Moses’s father-in-law, Jeth-ro (see Judg 1:16).
Saul set the attack (15:4-5), and may have begun with the intention of obeying God’s instructions as delivered through Samuel. But, as the battle raged and the Israelites got the upper hand, Saul apparently got a big head. Though he struck down the Amalek-ites, he spared King Agag and the best of the . . . animals. These became spoils of war. In spite of the Lord’s explicit command, Saul and his troops were not willing to destroy what God said to destroy (15:8-9). To boldly do what God clearly forbids and then to justify yourself is a conscience-searing act.
15:10-11 It is sad but not surprising to read God’s words to Samuel regarding Saul’s actions: I regret that I made Saul king (15:11). Clearly, God is omniscient and knew how his reign would turn out. Nevertheless, he was genuinely grieved by Saul’s rebellion against him. Samuel, likewise, was affected. He became angry and cried out to the Lord all night (15:11). No one sins in a vacuum. Our disobedience affects God, and it affects the people in our lives.
15:12-13 Self-glorification seems to have been Saul’s intent in disobeying orders, because when Samuel came to confront him, he was told that the king had gone to Carmel to set up a monument for himself (15:12). When Samuel caught up with Saul at Gilgal, Saul had his story all lined up, and even had the gall to start with his testimony of obedience: I have carried out the Lord’s instructions (15:13).
15:14-15 Samuel quickly brought Saul back to reality from his world of self-justification. With Samuel’s simple question about the noise from the Amalekites’s animals—which were supposed to be dead—Saul realized he was in trouble (15:14). But, true to form, he had an excuse ready. The best of the animals were spared in order to offer a sacrifice to the Lord your God (15:15). In other words, he said, “I slightly modified God’s commands so that I might worship him.” But you can’t honor God by defying him. You can’t glorify the King by rejecting his kingdom agenda.
15:16-21 Samuel didn’t want to hear Saul’s excuses (15:16). He proceeded to tell Saul what God thought of his actions. He had failed to obey the Lord and instead did what was evil in the Lord’s sight (15:19). At this rebuke, Saul protested his innocence once again: But I did obey the Lord! (15:20). He even implied that Samuel and God should be pleased that the animals were going to be used for sacrifices (15:20-21).
15:22-24 The lesson Saul missed was the timeless principle that to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams (15:22). In other words, the Lord calls people to submit to his agenda, not to attempt to honor him with their own agendas. When Saul failed Obedience 101, it cost him his throne (15:23). So, Saul modified his justification for his actions. He admitted that he had sinned, but blamed the people for it (15:24). Unfortunately, Saul feared humans more than he feared God.
15:25-29 Saul asked Samuel for forgiveness and begged him to return with him to the people to show that Saul had not lost Samuel’s support (15:25). That Saul grabbed and tore Samuel’s robe (15:27) shows a desperate man grasping for a straw of hope, but even that became a prophetic sign against him (15:28-29).
15:30-35 When Saul pleaded with Samuel to honor him before the elders, Samuel eventually agreed (15:30-31). But, it didn’t change God’s decree, even though Saul would rule for many more years. Samuel’s greater mission in returning with Saul was to finish the job this failed king was supposed to have accomplished. He called for King Agag and then personally put him to death (15:31-33).
The statement in verse 35 that Samuel never saw Saul again does not contradict Saul’s appearance before Samuel in 19:24. The verb see can also mean “to have regard for, to take notice of.” As far as Samuel was concerned, then, his relationship with Saul was over. God had rejected him.
chapter 15 is strategic for the author’s purpose of introducing David and his dynasty in the chapters to follow. It was important to show how Saul’s disobedience had disqualified him and his family from the kingship, and that it was the Lord who chose David and his descendants. Through David’s line, God would fulfill his covenant promise to send an eternal ruler, his Messiah.