The Sins Of King Saul
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What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.—James 4:1-3{FOOTNOTE: All biblical citations are from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.}

Wade Austin

When God acceded to Israel’s request for a king to rule over them, he told Samuel: “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 8:7). When Samuel warned there would be negative consequences in appointing a king, the people persisted: “No! they said. 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” (1 Samuel 8:19,20).

Eventually God told Samuel to choose Saul, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul was “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:2). He fit the image of a king that Israel was looking for, at least on the outside!

However, Saul’s enigmatic behavior revealed a person with internal conflicts. He constantly struggled when leading the nation. Rather than depend on God for his strength, he was full of self-doubt, even hiding when it came time for his public anointing (1 Samuel 10:20-22). Underneath this self-doubt was a lack of faith and devotion to God.

Saul’s weaknesses could have made him humbly obedient to God. However, whether because of pride or selfish desire, he never was an effective king. He continually disobeyed the leadings of God as communicated to him by the prophet Samuel. Therefore, God declared through Samuel: “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command” (1 Samuel 13:13,14).

Eventually God identified the “man after his own heart” as David, son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah. David had the necessary humility, recognized God as the source of his strength, and extolled God’s love and mercy. Here was the critical difference between David and Saul: Saul excused sin when Samuel accused him of it, while David recognized his sin and asked for a clean heart. It is this difference in the response of these two kings that shows the effects of unrepentant sin.

Sin Causes Conflict

Simply put, sin causes conflict both without and within. Unresolved conflict is a slippery slope that leads to more sin. A heart in tune with God seeks to glorify him, to serve others, and to grow in the image of Christ. A heart at enmity with God causes constant conflict. Saul’s sin precipitated conflicts between himself and David as well as between himself and his son Jonathan.

The apostle James declared the source of serious and often hurtful conflict among God’s people in the first words of chapter four at the top of this page. Selfish desires, often beginning innocently, work within us, leading to premature judgment. This judgment leads to ill feelings or even hatred, which in turn results in both escape and attack responses.

The seeds of conflict between Saul and David and between Saul and Jonathan were sown by Saul’s disobedience on several occasions. Saul did not wait for Samuel to offer sacrifices as he had been told to do (1 Samuel 10:8; 13:7-10). Impatience, pride, and a lack of faith drove Saul to presume authority and to run ahead of the Lord. Instead of being remorseful for what he did, he attempted to justify his behavior: “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash, I thought, Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD’s favor. So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:11,12). Samuel met this unrepentant attitude on the part of Saul with the simple declaration, “Now your kingdom will not endure” (1 Samuel 13:14).

On another occasion, Saul failed to obey the Lord’s instructions regarding the Amalekites. “Samuel said to Saul, I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)

Saul ordered his men to keep the best of the livestock and to spare the life of the Amalekite king Agag. When Samuel confronted him, Saul once again rationalized his disobedience with a plea that he had kept the best of the livestock to sacrifice to God. Samuel responded: “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:22,23, KJV)

Saul pleaded with Samuel to return with him, but it was too late. As Samuel turned to walk away, Saul caught him by his robes and tore Samuel’s garment. The prophet looked at his torn garment and likened it to Saul’s kingdom which had been torn from him and given to another. Saul pleaded: “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God” (1 Samuel 15:30). Saul’s motive was not pure. He hoped to salvage his kingship by appeasing God and killing Agag. But it was too late. Saul would never see Samuel again.

David Anointed King of Israel

Many years later Samuel was sent to Bethlehem to anoint Israel’s next king. When he saw David’s oldest brother, he thought he must be the right one, but ironically God now showed him the importance of not judging by the outside appearance: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Being removed from God’s grace made Saul jealous and bitter toward David. David’s efforts at peace between the two were ineffective because Saul’s heart was not right: “When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands. Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. They have credited David with tens of thousands, he thought, but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom? And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David.” (1 Samuel 18:6-9)

Good intentions are often not enough to effectively reconcile parties in conflict. David (and Jonathan) wanted peace with Saul, but Saul would not humble himself. God told Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 16:1). Eventually Saul died by his own hand, never being at peace with David or God (1 Samuel 31:4).

Being a Peacemaker

Saul’s sins undermined and ruined his opportunity for a healthy relationship with David, Jonathan, and, most importantly, God. David respected Saul as God’s anointed despite his attempts to kill David. He even spared Saul’s life on several occasions. David, in spite of his own sins and failings, stands as a remarkable example of how we should approach conflict. In everything, David wished to glorify God. If our heart is turned toward God, we will view conflict and persecution as an opportunity to glorify God, serve others, and grow in Christlikeness.

God instructs his children to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Scripture provides much counsel about peacemaking principles, but they are not easily applied.

Let us make every effort to be peacemakers among the Lord’s people.