Saul and David were Israel’s first two kings, and though their lives crossed each other’s paths on multiple occasions, they were very different from each other, and the difference was primarily a matter of the heart. Throughout his life, Saul proved to be a terrible king who repeatedly rejected God’s will and went his own way. Without God to guide and sustain, Saul became paranoid and sought to control those around him, and those he could not control, he tried to kill. David, on other hand, was an ideal king, and though he had his sinful failings, he handled them in a biblical manner, accepting God’s punishment and returning to a life of obedience.
The story of Saul begins with a breakdown in Israel’s leadership. Samuel had been the nation’s judge for many years and he’d been faithful to obey the Lord and treat His people fairly. However, as Samuel grew old, he appointed his two sons, Joel and Abijah, to rule as judges in his place (1 Sam 8:1-2), but his sons “did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3). Israel’s elders came to Samuel at Ramah (1 Sam 8:4), and said, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). There was nothing wrong with Israel having a king; in fact, God told both Abraham and Jacob, “kings will come forth from you” (Gen 17:6; 35:11), and the Lord gave Moses the qualifications for a king, as well as the basic rules that were to guide his life (Deu 17:14-20). The hidden motivation of the elders was later revealed, for what they wanted was to be like the nations around them, to have a king who would go out and fight their military battles (1 Sam 8:20). The elders either did not know about the qualifications of Israel’s king, or did not care. Either way, “the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the LORD” (1 Sam 8:6). God said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). Israel was a theocratic kingdom in which God was their King. The request for a human king was born out of a heart of independence, in which His people did not want Him as their Ruler; rather, they wanted a king so they could be like the other nations. The request was ultimately a rejection of God.
This request by Israel’s leaders was part of a long history of defiance that could be traced back nearly four hundred years, going back to the days of the Exodus, when God called Moses to lead His people out of Egypt. God explained to Samuel, “Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also” (1 Sam 8:8). Rejecting God and worshipping idols was the national proclivity of Israel. “God saw this demand as one more instance of apostasy that had marked the Israelites since the Exodus. He acceded to their request as He had done many times before—by providing manna, quail, and water in the wilderness, for example. However, He mixed judgment with His grace.” For a second time God told Samuel to “listen to their voice” (1 Sam 8:9a), and then told him, “you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them” (1 Sam 8:9). Samuel warned the leadership that what they requested would result in their harm (1 Sam 8:10-18), as the king would “take” more than he’d give (mentioned six times), that he would take the “best” of what they had (sons, daughters, fields, crops, servants and flocks), and the people would eventually become his “servants” (i.e. slaves vs. 17). Over time, this would result in great oppression, and they were warned, “Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam 8:18). With all this information, “the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, ‘No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles’” (1 Sam 8:19-20). Here is foolishness on display. God’s people rejecting Him and His wisdom, determined to run their kingdom their way, without Him. So the Lord granted their request and selected a Benjamite named Saul (1 Sam 9:1-2, 17), providentially directing him to Samuel (1 Sam 9:3-37), who anointed him king over Israel (1 Sam 10:1; cf. 10:24; 12:13). God gave Israel what they wanted; He gave them Saul, a king after their own hearts, and they would suffer for it.
Saul had the outward appearance of what most people look for in a leader, for he was “a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam 9:2). David was good looking too, as Scripture describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance” (1 Sam 16:12; cf. vs. 18). Often when we search for a leader, we want someone who looks and talks a certain way, has the right credentials and preferably a good work history. We shouldn’t diminish those things, but simply put them in their place, as being below the things God desires, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
Before becoming king, Saul is described in positive ways as “a mighty man of valor” (1 Sam 9:1), who showed concern for his father (1 Sam 9:3-4), listened to good advice from a friend (1 Sam 9:5-6), showed respect for God’s prophet (1 Sam 9:7-9), listened to him (1 Sam 9:17-10:8), and functioned as a prophet himself (1 Sam 10:9-13). However, Saul’s admirable qualities did not journey with him into his new position as king. After his promotion, Saul’s soul became unstable and he spent most of his life looking around rather than looking up, as he was governed by fear, jealousy, suspicion and hatred of those whom God was advancing; namely David. Saul could have done well. He could have flourished as Israel’s king if he’d listened to God’s voice and walked with Him. But his kingship turned out to be a failure because he would not obey the Lord.
The major turning point in Saul’s life occurred when he failed to wait on God. Saul sinned by offering a sacrifice to God (1 Sam 13:8-14), which violated a previous command given by Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, who told Saul, “you shall go down before me to Gilgal; and behold, I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice peace offerings. You shall wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you should do” (1 Sam 10:8). Saul waited the seven days as Samuel instructed (1 Sam 13:8), but then took matters into his own hands and offered the sacrifices that Samuel was supposed to offer (1 Sam 13:9-10). Samuel pointed out Saul’s failure and said, “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Sam 13:13). The consequence for Saul was that God would take away his kingdom and give it to another who would obey Him. The Lord said, “But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Sam 13:14; cf. Acts 13:22). To be a person after God’s own heart means to be one who obeys the Lord’s commands. Saul’s life progressively spiraled downward from this point forward.
Saul’s turning away from the Lord was marked by numerous foolish acts that spread over his life. Saul had issued a thoughtless command that harmed his people (1 Sam 14:24-30), and disobeyed the command to destroy completely the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:3, 8-9). Furthermore, Saul was afraid of David, because God was with him (1 Sam 18:12-16, 18, 29), and twice tried to kill him with a spear (1 Sam 18:10-11; 19:10), and conspired to kill him through others (1 Sam 19:1, 11, 15; 20:30-31). Saul even tried to kill Jonathan, his own son (20:32-33; cf. 1 Sam 14:44). Later, he had eighty-five Levitical priests killed (1 Sam 22:11-18). Saul wasted many years of his life chasing after David rather than building up the nation. By the end of his life, Saul debased himself by consulting a medium (1 Sam 28:5-28), which is against to God’s will (Deu 18:10-11). Eventually, Saul committed suicide (1 Sam 31:4). By the end of his life, “Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the LORD. Therefore He killed him and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse” (1 Ch 10:13-14). David was a better king than Saul. He was a better king because he lived by faith and obeyed the Lord.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- Reasons why we obey God
- Learning to Live by Faith
- Walking with God
- When God Gives us a Test
- Chasing After Donkeys (God’s providence to anoint Saul as king)
- What is Integrity?
- The Characteristics of a Christian Leader
- Contrasting Good and Bad Leaders
 Because Israel was a theocracy, their king was to lead as a subordinate to the Lord, submitting himself to the Law of God as revealed in Scripture. The Mosaic Law specifically commanded that the king of Israel be one of their own countrymen and not a foreigner (Deu 17:15), that he not multiply horses and rely on his military strength (Deu 17:16), that he not practice polygamy, lest his wives turn his heart away from the Lord (Deu 17:17a), and that he not greatly increase silver and gold, lest he rely on his riches to save him in time of trouble (Deu 17:17b). In addition, the king of Israel was to write out a copy of the Mosaic Law and carry it with him all the days of his life that he might observe the Lord’s commands and walk in them (Deu 17:18-20).
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Sa 8:4.