After God brought Ancient Israel out of Egypt and gave them the promised land, Moses and Joshua–the guides he’d worked with to lead the people–passed away. In the years following, God worked through the priesthood and judges to lead His people as they struggled to follow Him faithfully. After the priesthood and their current prophet’s sons grew corrupt, the people decided the best solution to the problem of who should lead them was to have a king like all the other nations did.
The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king.1 Samuel 8:7, NET
The people decided they didn’t want God ruling over them directly, so God honored their request and picked a man to lead them. The first man God picked for this task was Saul. His rule didn’t last, though, and he was replaced by David. Anyone familiar with scripture knows about King David; he was the man after God’s own heart who is the most prominent human ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus. But what about Saul? Was he just a stepping stone to David; a disposable king? Or did he get the same opportunity as David and responded differently?
This is an important question for us to answer because it gets to the heart of how God works with people. He chose Saul, and David, and if we’re called to be in His family today He chose us as well. And because the Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8) the way He worked with people thousands of years ago can still teach us about how He works with us today.
To Lead, Rule, and Deliver
Both David and Saul were identified and chosen by God, and anointed as king by Samuel the prophet. Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, “the smallest of Israel’s tribes,” and he initially had an ego to match (1 Sam. 9:21, NET). He was “little in his own sight” when God made him “head of the tribes of Israel” (1 Sam. 15: 17, WEB), and he even hid from his coronation (1 Sam. 10:22).
Then Samuel took a small container of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head. Samuel kissed him and said, “The Lord has chosen you to lead his people Israel! You will rule over the Lord’s people and you will deliver them from the power of the enemies who surround them.1 Samuel 10:1, NET (click for explanation of why this verse is longer in the NET translation than most English versions)
God entrusted Saul with the task of leading, ruling, and delivering his people. Saul did this for years, but after he lost his humility and chose a path of disobedience David was chosen to replace him. This time, the text specifies that God “sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him” (1 Sam. 13:14, NET), who was selected based on the condition of his heart (1 Sam. 16:1-13). Though the “lead, rule, deliver” language isn’t used, David quickly took on that role and showed the commitment of his heart through the actions he took to honor God.
The first example we have of this is the story of David verses Goliath. We think of this as a wonderful underdog story and a demonstration of David’s faith, but it was also a demonstration of Saul’s failure. When Saul was chosen as king, scripture tells us he “stood head and shoulders above all the other Israelites (1 Sam. 10:23). The NET footnote on 1 Sam. 17:4 says that the average height of an Israelite man at this time was about 5′ 3″ (1.6 m), making Saul about 6′ (1.8 m) tall. When Goliath, who was likely between 6′ 7″ and 9′ 5″ (2 to 2.9 m) tall, showed up it should have been the tall warrior-king of Israel who stood up against him in the Lord’s name to deliver the people of God. Instead, it was the ruddy and handsome shepherd boy who stepped into that role (1 Sam. 16:12; 17:33-36).
Heart and Spirit
The main difference between David and Saul was not that one was given a head start by God or that God wanted one to succeed and the other to fail. After Saul was anointed and chosen, “the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul” (1 Sam. 10:10; 11:6). Also, “God changed his inmost person” (1 Sam. 10:9). Other translations of this line include, “gave him another heart” (NAB; NRSV) and “gave Saul a new nature” (TEV). We don’t know how much of God’s Spirit Saul had or how long the Holy Spirit was with him (only that “the spirit of the Lord had turned away from Saul” by the time of David’s anointing), but we do know that God gave His spirit to this man and worked with him on a heart-level. Though Saul lost God’s spirit, he started out with God’s full backing. Saul was not set up to fail. It was his own choices that led to his removal as king.
Then Samuel said to Saul, “You have made a foolish choice! You have not obeyed the commandment that the Lord your God gave you. Had you done that, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom will not continue. The Lord has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him, and the Lord has appointed him to be leader over his people, for you have not obeyed what the Lord commanded you.”1 Samuel 13:13-14, NET
Later, God told Samuel, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from me and has not done what I told him to do” (1 Sam. 15:10, NET). He was saddened when Saul disqualified himself, but it was Saul’s decision to make. Saul refused to obey God and he wasn’t humble enough to take responsibility for his actions–even when he acknowledged he’d sinned his concern was with saving face in front of the people–so the Lord tore the kingdom away from him (1 Sam. 15:16-31).
Of course, David also sinned against the Lord, sometimes in spectacularly horrible ways. But instead of defending himself and insisting, “but I have obeyed the Lord!” David admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord” and sincerely repents (2 Sam. 12:13-14; Psalm 51). David wasn’t perfect any more than Saul was, but he had a heart that prompted him to continually turn back and seek the Lord. He stayed humble, teachable, and obedient (2 Sam. 7:18-27).
Living to Honor God
What about us? Have we begun to take the blessings and honors God gives us for granted? Do we go our own way and ignore the Lord’s commandments, thinking we know best and He’ll appreciate whatever we want to give Him? Or do we take the lessons of Saul’s story to heart and instead follow David’s example of humble gratitude for God’s divine favor, commitment to obedience, and sincere repentance when we miss the mark?
God “desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth,” as well as to “come to repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9, WEB). That desire manifests itself in Jesus dying for our sins, the offer of salvation, and God’s longsuffering patience toward all of us. He has set us up for success and wants to give us eternal life. Part of whether or not that comes to pass is up to us, though.
So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.Philippians 2:12-13, NET
Salvation is something God accomplishes in us through His grace. It is also something we work on with Him for our whole lives. Like David, we need to show our commitment to honor God through the actions we take. We need to stay humble, in awe of the fact that God would choose to work with us, and never devalue His love or His favor.