Read the passage here.
Last week, in our continuing look at the book (or books) of Samuel, we discussed the transition from Judges to kings – that is, the transition from a tribal Israel ruled by judges to a unified Israel ruled by a king. And again, in the on-going narrative of the establishment of a people, a nation governed by a king is actually an important element.
However, the primary theme that we looked at was that Israel’s king must be a different kind of king. Israel as a nation must not be like all the other nations of the world, and thus Israel’s king must not be like the kings of all the other nations. Now we’ve already discussed some of what this means, though there is a lot more to discuss. However, it’s worth keeping in mind the character and means of the one true king, Jesus Christ. And if we remember our study of the gospel of Matthew, we should already have a pretty clear understanding of how the king, and how His kingdom, stands apart – how He is different from all the other nations of the world.
So having said all of that, today we’re going to be introduced to the person of Saul. And we probably already have a good understanding that King Saul functions as a foil to King David. Or to put it another way, we know that King David is a kind of archetypal king of Israel – a sort of ‘ideal’ king, at least in Israel’s imagination. King Saul is precisely the opposite – He very much shows us what kind of king we don’t want.
Now at this point I feel like it’s important to point out that we can’t mistake the literary type for reality. In other words, from the point of view of the narrative, Saul is very much a foil to David – David is good, Saul is not. However, I want to remind us that, in scripture, we are dealing with very real people. And so, simply put, it’s a mistake to think of Saul as purely bad and David as purely good. We’ve already seen in scripture that none of the Old Testament “heroes” were always heroic. In fact, they were rarely good. In the same way, we should avoid the temptation to think of Saul as always bad. Saul was a real person in real history.
As always, what we want to do (or what I want to encourage us to do) is to pay attention to the person and purposes of God as He works out redemption in the scriptural story.
So having said all that, last week we saw that the Israelites were demanding from Samuel a king to rule over them. And we remember that what the Israelites wanted was to have a king and to be a nation like all the other nations around them. Now today we are actually covering a few chapters in 1 Samuel so I’m not going to read the entire passage. However, the chapters with which we are concerned are 1 Samuel 9:1 – 10:27 (or simply, 1 Samuel ch. 9 and 10).
Here’s a brief rundown of what happens in these chapters:
The story opens up in the beginning of chapter 9 by introducing us to Saul, a man of the tribe of Benjamin. The text tells us that Saul is “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel,” and “a head taller than anyone else.”
Saul is sent by his father to find some lost donkeys. He and his servant search the area but do not find them.
The servant suggests that they inquire of the local seer or prophet – a man of God – who turns out to be Samuel. And in a brief interlude, we find out that Samuel has been told by God to look for the man who would be Israel’s king. When Samuel sees Saul, the Lord confirms that he is the man who Samuel was told about.
Samuel then invites Saul to a meal, telling him (albeit in a roundabout way to our ears) that he has been chosen.
Before Saul leaves Samuel’s company, Samuel anoints him with oil. Samuel then gives Saul a prophetic word containing a series of events that would serve to confirm what Samuel had said – in effect, confirming the anointing.
We then read that, as Saul leaves, all of the signs that Samuel had spoken come to pass. In particular, the text pays attention to Saul’s prophesying along with another group of prophets.
Saul then meets up with his uncle who asks where he has been. Saul replies that he has been looking for the donkeys, but the text tells us he doesn’t mention anything to his uncle about the kingship.
We then read that Samuel gathers all of the people at Mizpah, where he had defeated the Philistines. In response to their demand for a king, Samuel sorts through the tribes using lots (that is, drawing straws). Finally, he gets down to the tribe of Benjamin, the clan of Saul, and finally Saul himself. But Saul is nowhere to be found – it turns out that Saul has been hiding. When Saul finally comes out, Saul is once again noted as being “taller than any of the others. And the people proclaim Saul as king.
Samuel explains the rights and duties of the king, writes them on a scroll, and then sent the people home. Saul also goes home. And the final words of the chapter are, “But some scoundrels said, ‘How can this fellow save us?’ They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent.” (v. 27).
So that’s the story in a nutshell – or rather, the plot in a nutshell. But as we know, a story isn’t told only in the events. A good story is revealed in a lot of the details – the details tell us about character, they tell us about nuances, and they tell us about significance. Unfortunately, I’m not going to discuss all of the important details – and there are many. I am, however, going to talk about a few of the details in the text that seem particularly interesting to me.
So the first thing we learn about Saul is told to us in the first verses of this section. In verses 1-2, we read:
9:1 There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bekorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. 2 Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.1 Samuel 9:1-2
Now this is one of those passages that is easily glossed over. It sounds an awful lot like the genealogies that we read in many places that we likewise don’t often pay too much attention to. However, as we’ve discussed before, the genealogies are there for a reason. And though this is a very abridged genealogy compared to some of the ones we’ve read before, it’s likewise probably given to us for a reason.
The main thing that I want to point out is that Saul is designated as a man of the tribe of Benjamin. Last week, we talked about how the book of Samuel seems to assume and logically follow the book of Judges. We may be seeing another such connection here. In the book of Judges, in chap. 19-21, we read about a pretty horrific story involving the tribe of Benjamin. We discussed it briefly in our study of Judges, and without going into too much detail, the story in Judges very much recalls the story in Genesis of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the story of the Benjamites in Judges involves visitors to a city (in the land of the Benjamites) being accosted, raped, and killed. The rest of Israel, horrified at what the Benjamites have done, unite against the tribe of Benjamin.
Again, without going into detail, and for the sake of time, I simply want to say that it’s probably significant (in a negative way) that Saul is pointed out as being from the tribe of Benjamin.
Now having said that, though the text makes a point of indicating Saul’s genealogy, we can’t assume that a negative prejudice is present among the people. Even if such a prejudice existed, the people were very much prepared to overlook it. In fact, Saul seems very much like the kind of king the people would have wanted.
Hopefully we remember from last week that the issue here seems to be not that the Israelites wanted a king, but rather the kind of king that they wanted. And what we read in our passage today is that one of the main characteristics of Saul was his imposing height – that is, one of the main visible characteristics of Saul. We see this in verse 2, which we just read. And we read it again in verse 23 (this is following the casting of lots, after which the people are searching for Saul)
23 They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others. 24 Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.”1 Samuel 9:23-24
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with being tall. But in scripture, there seems to be something synonymous with excessive height or size and opposition to God. Specifically, in the book of Samuel, and specifically the story of David, the paradigmatic enemies are the Philistines. And the paradigmatic Philistine is Goliath, who is described as being almost 10 feet tall.
Throughout Samuel, excessive size is often used to describe Israel’s enemies (including Goliath’s brothers and “a huge man” with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot).
And it may be interesting to note that some believe that the Philistines are descended from the Anakim, who are believed to be descended from the Nephilim (which we first hear about in Genesis, in describing the wickedness of the world, right before the account of the great flood). And the Nephilim are thought by some to be interpreted as fallen angels.
All of that is simply to say that Saul’s massive height is not a good indication by biblical standards. However, to the people, this was extremely impressive. Because it was a sign of strength. It meant that this was a king who could go out and fight their battles. But as we know, human beings look at outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.
Which brings us to the third thing that we learn about Saul – and this has to do with his character. Specifically, throughout the text, we keep seeing Saul’s reticence. Saul doesn’t seem to understand the voice of God and doesn’t seem willing to accept the call of God. Now this happens in a number of instances.
Firstly, there is a sense in which he doesn’t seem to know who the prophet Samuel is – that is, he does not know the voice of God. But more importantly, Saul seems to think that the appropriate way to engage with the prophet of God is by purchasing his services. In other words, and in short, he seems to take a pagan approach to dealing with a deity.
Next, after receiving the prophetic word from Samuel, and returning home, he doesn’t tell his uncle about his anointing as King of Israel. He hides the most important part of Samuel’s (and thus, God’s) word to him.
Next, after the drawing of lots indicating that Saul is the chosen king of Israel, Saul chooses to hide among the supplies – Saul literally hides from his calling.
And finally (at least as far as we’re exploring today), what we read is that there is a discrepancy between Samuel’s instructions, which are part of the prophetic word, and what Saul actually does.
More specifically, we read that when Saul meets Samuel, Saul anoints Saul as king (10:1) – this we know is synonymous with crowning the king. Then Samuel gives Saul a prophetic word, a series of signs that will serve to confirm what Samuel has done (10:2-7). And we read that all of these things happened to Saul, just as Samuel said (10:9-11), culminating with Saul prophesying along with some travelling prophets. However, what Samuel also said was that once these signs were fulfilled, Saul should “do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you,” that is at Gilgal. This refers to what we’ll see in the next chapter, that Saul is supposed to confront and defeat the Ammonites.
However, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the entire episode with the drawing of lots, choosing Saul’s clan, and then choosing Saul as king, and Saul hiding among the supplies, all happen precisely because Saul doesn’t listen to the word of Samuel.
In other words, the anointing wasn’t enough for Saul to take up God’s calling and to follow God’s instructions. And this is what necessitates yet another episode of the choosing of a king (this time publicly), from which Saul still runs away.
All of this to say that Saul seems (at best) reluctant to accept the call of God, or (at worst) actively running away from the call of God.
Now what do we do with this text?
To begin with, I want to say (or rather remind us) that paying attention to scripture, listening to and opening ourselves up to the revelation of God is not simply a matter of “what we get out of it.” We don’t read scripture so we can figure out “the lesson.”
Nevertheless, what I might say is that this story makes me think of a few things. And as I often do, what I want to note is that these are my own thoughts, and while I think they flow out of the text, my thoughts on the text should not be taken to be equivalent to “what the text is really saying.” But maybe they’ll help you think about it too.
Firstly, what I want to say is that understanding the “origins” of Saul is an important part of understanding the larger story. Specifically, it tells us about the larger story of the kingship of David, which is part of the story of God’s establishing the kingdom of Israel. And an important part of that story is yet another example of how the people are still demanding or looking for something other than what God is actually doing. We can remember how when the Israelites were delivered from slavery, many of them still demanded to go back to Egypt. We remember that when they were preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan, the constant warning was to not become like the people they found there. And here, even still, we see the reminder that the people of God are called to be a different kind of people.
And that leads to the second thing. That is, what we see is that the people are still looking for something and someone that makes sense to them according to the framework of the world. In this case, it seems to have something to do with strength and power. And perhaps the thought process is something like, if we can amass enough strength and power, then we can get what we want. Which can easily be perverted into something like, if we can amass enough strength and power, then we can do what God wants. Now as I’ve said before, this should give us pause as we think about how we choose our leaders. But it should also give us pause as we think about what kind of persons we are trying to become.
Now the third thing that I think about is related to the previous. And this arises specifically out of the reluctance that we seem to see in this passage from Saul regarding embracing God’s calling. That is, and again, Saul seems extremely reluctant to embrace God’s calling to kingship. Now on the one hand, we might mistake that for humility. However, what we are going to see is that Saul, very quickly, does embrace being king. So much so that when someone else is raised up to kingship (that is, David), Saul wants to kill him – presumably to protect his own throne. But he certainly wasn’t holding onto the kind of kingship that God had called him to.
Now I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and I don’t want to make presumptions. But it seems to me, although it may be subtle here, that Saul’s initial reluctance to listen to the voice of God has something to do with not truly knowing the voice of God (and for this, I refer to the previous point we made about how Saul did not know Samuel, God’s prophet).
And again, these are my reflections, so it’s worth taking it with a grain of salt – but it seems to me that if someone enters into a position like kingship, if one is not listening to the voice of God, one’s understanding of kingship quickly becomes informed by something else. That is, Saul doesn’t listen to the voice of God to learn what it means to be a king; whatever it is he learned about kingship, it seems he learned it somewhere else.
And in whatever we are called to be or do, if we are not listening to the voice of God, our calling will quickly be informed by something else. And make no mistake, there is always something else telling us what we are called to be or do. And so our calling will not be towards and into the image of God, but towards and into the image of the world.
At any rate, I don’t want to over-state that – but perhaps it’s something we should pay attention to as we continue to listen to the story of Saul. Perhaps it’s something we should pay attention to as we continue to hear the story of Israel – as they seek to become a people who are blessed to be a blessing, whose voice are they truly listening to? And whose voice are we truly listening to as we seek to be a people of the kingdom? When God calls, are we prepared to listen? Are we truly prepared to become who God wants us to be?