A Man After Man's Own Heart

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When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?—1 Samuel 15:17

Daniel Kaleta

An old proverb says: “Like master, like man.” In some circumstances, though, ..the reverse is true: Like man, like master. Today we can see it best when democratic nations elect from among their members leaders according to their expectations. A healthy society chooses worthy leaders. Degenerate masses choose degenerate individuals.

It might seem that the situation was different in the old days of Israel’s monarchy when kings ruled “by the grace of God.” They often thought they did not need to be concerned about popularity. However, an unpopular king might not be able to exercise his monarchal power successfully and could easily be overthrown by a better-liked candidate. Even a strong despot needed enough support to at least intimidate the rest of the society.

King Saul was a “product” of his time. Following the example of other nations, Israel wanted a king to reign over them (1 Samuel 8:5). The list of harsh royal rights presented by Samuel did not discourage them (1 Samuel 8:11-18). This desire did not constitute an offense against the Law since God had foreseen such a possibility (Deuteronomy 17:14). Nevertheless, God perceived this request as a sign of forsaking him. Forsaking is a trespass against love. A society that rejected God’s reign would accept the rule of a king, who in his own actions did not follow the principle of showing respect for God.

Saul was appointed and chosen by God. God’s decisions are governed by wisdom which so vastly exceeds our understanding (Romans 11:33) that it is sometimes better not to attempt to understand them. One might ask why God did not select someone after his own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), or why he did not come from the tribe of Judah whose destiny was to receive the scepter and the shepherd’s staff (Genesis 49:10). Perhaps the appointed time had not come, or perhaps the tenth generation from Pharez{FOOTNOTE: David was the tenth generation from Pharez, an out-of-wedlock child (Genesis 38:24; Pharez, Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon, Salma, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David—1 Chronicles 2:4-15).} was not fully ready (Deuteronomy 23:2). Perhaps God was waiting for David, who was chosen while he was being fashioned in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:16); or maybe the Lord simply wanted to demonstrate to the Israelites and to all their offspring the reality of the reign by a king desired according to the stubbornness of the evil human heart. We may not know the answer to this question.

Saul did not come from a noble family. He was an ordinary peasant. Even after ascending to the throne, he still worked in the fields (1 Samuel 11:5). He met Samuel while searching for his father’s lost donkeys. When he found out that the best in Israel would become his (1 Samuel 9:20), he responded in a way that could show either humility or an inferiority complex: “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Samuel 9:21). Saul must have thought that only a representative of a powerful family from a large tribe could be the leader of God’s people. This was not the case with many of Israel’s judges. Gideon, for example, did not need a mighty army to win a spectacular victory.

Saul already knew he would be the king, and yet, when coronation day arrived, he hid among the baggage in such a remote spot that the people had to ask God to help find their future ruler (1 Samuel 10:22). Though some of the people, seeing Saul’s great height, immediately hailed him as king at Samuel’s word, some “worthless fellows” despised him probably because of his humble background. Such a reaction might confirm Saul’s worst fears. It might make him think, “I told you so.” Perhaps this was why he did not immediately begin to organize the government, the court, and the standing army, but rather returned to farming.

There was perhaps only one recorded instance when Saul acted as a true statesman. After his first victory over Israel’s enemy, some of his supporters vengefully pressured Samuel to exact punishment on those who initially did not accept the new king (1 Samuel 11:12). Saul, however, showed moderation appropriate to the situation: “There shall not a man be put to death this day: for to day the LORD hath wrought salvation in Israel” (1 Samuel 11:13). Thus he captivated the hearts of the Israelites and Samuel himself, as he was again made king, this time in Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:15). It was probably then that he began to organize an army that would be able to curb future Philistine assaults (1 Samuel 13:2).

Later at the time of Saul’s greatest moral defeat, Samuel reminded him about his initial feeling of inferiority: “When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17). This metamorphosis of Saul from an insignificant man, likely full of inhibitions, into a ruthless tyrant, who was willing to reach his political goals by slaying an entire city of priests (1 Samuel 22:18,19), persecuting relatives (1 Samuel 20:30), or even killing his own son (1 Samuel 14:44; 20:33), is not that unusual. One can only speculate if Saul was destined to end like this, or, had he taken wiser steps, if he might have avoided this path which inevitably led him to a tragic downfall.

The answer to that question is important to all who read Saul’s story. Many suffer from feelings of inferiority and lack self-esteem. This may lead to depression, paranoia, sickness, and even, as in the case of Saul, to suicide (1 Samuel 31:4). Experts say that a feeling of inferiority is natural in everyone, and it does not indicate an inferiority complex or other personality defect. However, it often happens that a person experiencing an exaggerated feeling of inferiority attempts to compensate by means of an unnatural desire to be exalted above everyone else. Not being able to fulfill unrealistic expectations may lead to depression and other psychological disorders. The susceptibility to depression, just as in the case of other ailments, is not under an individual’s control. However, dealing with it in a skillful manner or with appropriate therapy depends largely on the state of one’s spiritual life. This is why knowing what Saul could have done better to not be “troubled by an evil spirit from God” (1 Samuel 16:15) is so important to all who suffer from excessive feelings of inferiority.

Readiness to Serve

Many among those who served God were simple people. Describing himself, the prophet Amos said: “The LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). Elisha was plowing in a field when he was invited to accompany Elijah (1 Kings 19:19,20); Jeremiah was called when he was still a young lad (Jeremiah 1:7); Isaiah thought his lips were unclean (Isaiah 6:5). They all evidently felt inadequate. Nevertheless, when God called them to serve, they all responded without hesitation or murmuring. Elisha even slew his oxen, chopped up his plow to provide the wood to burn the sacrifice, and followed Elijah. Jeremiah complained many times about his difficult experiences but he also added: “His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jeremiah 20:9). Isaiah welcomed the symbolic purification of his lips by an angel, and without delay commenced his service.

Saul did none of these things. He knew he was supposed to serve Israel as king—he had already received three signs confirming it (1 Samuel 10:2-7)—but on coronation day he hid himself. Afterward, when he saw that not everyone was willing to accept him as king, he returned to his everyday pursuits. It might look as if his hesitation to accept the call to God’s service was because of his humility, but a believing Israelite, well acquainted with God and the power of his call, had no right to hesitate. Saul could have refused the opportunity, but he should not have doubted that God would be able to work miracles through even the weakest individual.

The situation of believers today is somewhat more difficult. The signs we receive from God are perhaps not as clear as those given to Saul by Samuel. Nonetheless there are situations where God wants to accomplish a goal using us. It does not have to be some great ministry that would involve preaching, witnessing, or charity work. Sometimes it may consist in mundane activities, down-to-earth services that benefit our neighbors or our brethren. Being ready for such work helps to overcome a feeling of inferiority. As soon as we commence doing what God wants us to do, we may immediately feel his power within us. We are able to repeat after Paul: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). However, if we decline God’s call and hold back from accepting God’s helpful hand, we reinforce our feeling of inferiority. Gradually that may become an inferiority complex which jealousy then harnesses against those around us who do work and succeed. We may criticize them and fight against them, just as Saul tried to kill David, although he initially loved him with all his heart (1 Samuel 16:21).

Self-confidence in God

Self-confidence is an undesirable character trait because it is associated with pride, with an inability to listen to advice, to observe God’s signs, and because it relies solely on one’s own strength. Nevertheless, a person who is familiar with God’s principles and who receives directions from him about how to conduct his life should not hesitate to do what is right. His confidence is not in self but in the God whom he worships and follows.

David was the complete opposite of Saul in that respect. He was a man of success who, even when he made huge mistakes, was able to turn them into personal victories. David did not hesitate because his confidence and faith was in God and not himself. When he sinned, he begged for forgiveness and fasted; when he was punished, he humbly accepted God’s sentence (2 Samuel 12:22,23.)

Saul, on the other hand, appears to have been constantly uncertain. The biggest mistakes in his life were not so much due to evil intentions as the result of uncertainty about how to proceed. He seemed to want to please those around him and to prove to himself and others that he was stronger than he looked. When he decided to hastily offer a sacrifice without Samuel, he offered this justification: “I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed” (1 Samuel 13:11). The principle of making sacrifices became insignificant in comparison with immediate political gain. Saul was afraid that the people would become discouraged and scatter. That would mean he would have no army to fight the enemy.

Saul showed similar behavior when he made an imprudent vow that resulted in sentencing his own son Jonathan to death. However, the people kept him from carrying out that vow (1 Samuel 14:45); they saved the son from death at the hand of his own father. This must have left an unforgettable impression upon the hearts of both Jonathan and Saul.

Saul’s gravest offense was when he did not follow God’s command to kill all the Amalekites and their animals. He spared the life of the Amalekite king and saved the best animals. Once again, he cites the people to justify what he did: “For the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God” (1 Samuel 15:15). It is possible the people actually intervened to keep the sheep and oxen from being killed, which could have been offered as a sacrifice and eaten during the sacrificial feast. Saul was afraid of the nation’s discontent. He knew what he should do, but he did not possess enough self-confidence, nor enough confidence in God’s power, to do the right thing even if it might be an unpopular decision among his subjects.

Oftentimes, we are not sure what to do, what our best option is. However, doing the politically popular thing is rarely right. The view of the majority is as likely to be wrong as right. God’s will does not lie somewhere in the middle between two extremes: it lies where it lies. The person whose conduct is based on the opinion of the majority is a populist and will often act against his own principles to please the majority. An old expression says Vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). “Vox dei” may have been the voice of the Roman gods, but it has not been the voice of God Almighty, whose interests have historically been represented by simple individuals and insignificant minorities.

A believer should have a vision, then do his best to live according to that vision. Otherwise he is in danger of internal conflict between doing what he thinks the majority favors and what he knows in his heart is right. The more momentous his decisions are, the more serious this conflict may become. It may eventually lead to despair and a psychological breakdown. If someone’s life principle consists in following the will of the majority, he must be consistent with that. Perhaps he will not always do what is best, but at least he will avoid the psychological problem known as cognitive dissonance (an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously). However, the better choice is to always act according to one’s own understanding of God’s will.

So let us study God’s word, listen to its wise counsel, and observe the signs God sends us. Then we should proceed to do what we perceive to be God’s will. God will perform everything for us (Psalm 138:8) and we, as David, will remain God’s beloved even though we may make mistakes.

The Art of Losing

Saul may have been the best of a poor list of candidates for Israel’s first king. David had not yet been born, the Israelites wanted a king, and they wanted him immediately. Samuel viewed this as a repudiation of him, but God said, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).

We have all seen instances when someone took an office as an interim choice, and made it into a great success. In politics or in sports it is said that just getting to the finals is a huge achievement in itself. Even in the world of exaggerated human ambition, fleshly wisdom calls us to accept the fact that there is always someone better than we are. It is much better to be an assistant to a gifted leader than to be a weak, ineffectual “monarch.”

We need the wisdom that comes from God to know the right course to pursue, and we must keep God’s wisdom as the controlling force in our lives. It teaches us that every service is valuable. Even if a more able person appears, someone who is a servant “after God’s own heart,” there is no reason to feel insulted or jealous. A mature person knows how to accept “coming in second.” Even coming in third or fourth can represent a personal victory.

Saul did not know how to accept God’s will when it differed from his own desires. When he saw David, someone who was more able and more popular, someone who was blessed by God, his hand automatically reached for his deadly spear. Once again we admire David, the beloved of God. For years he was willing to suffer humiliation while patiently waiting for God’s due time. David had faith in God and was willing to accept God’s will even when it cost him personally. He never took any opportunity to eliminate his rival no matter how easy it might be (1 Samuel 24:7; 26:11). In fact, he did not consider Saul a rival but rather God’s anointed. He was able to accept Saul’s rule even if it was the rule of a persecutor. Many times David knew how to accept God’s will and judgments, even if it was accompanied by acrimony on the part of the people.

Saul was unwilling to carry out his mission from God, nor did he have faith in God’s power, which gives strength when one is overcome with a feeling of weakness. He did not have a vision nor the desire to realize it if it came at the cost of his own popularity. Nevertheless, he was a great king of Israel. God allowed him to undertake a successful defense against the aggressive Philistines. His actions undoubtedly helped facilitate some of David’s achievements. Although we do see Saul’s weaknesses, we do not want to minimize God’s power as exhibited in this anointed one. Let us study his life, so we can avoid his mistakes in our own life. Let us never fall into despair, depression, and even madness. Saul’s life is a lesson as well as a warning about the importance of humility and accepting God’s will whatever the cost might seem to be.