Saul – The King who Failed

     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.

Samuel and the People     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).[1] 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.”[2] 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.

King Saul Offers a Sacrifice     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.

King Saul tries to Kill David     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

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[1] 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).

[2] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Sa 8:4.

Dealing with Fools

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7)

       The fear of the Lord for the unbeliever is fear of His judgment (Matt. 10:28), and is a fear that can lead to Christ for salvation (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  For the believer, the fear of the Lord is a profound reverence for God because He is holy, righteous and just (Ps. 89:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).  It is a healthy fear that leads to knowledge and obedience.  Moses wrote, “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name” (Deut. 10:20).  The fear of the Lord discourages sinfulness because we know He will discipline us in love if we turn away (Heb. 12:5-11).  The fear of the Lord is to hate what God hates; for Scripture reveals, “the fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverted mouth” (Prov. 8:13).  The fool has no fear of God, and he is said to “despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7b). 

       The Bible, especially Proverbs, contrasts the wise man (Heb. ḥoḵmâ; Gk. sophía) with the fool (Heb. ˓ewîl, kesîl, nāḇāl; sāḵāl; Gk. áphrōn, mōrós, anóētos).[1]  Wisdom (Heb. hokmah, Grk. sophos) is the beneficial instruction for making good choices that agree with God’s word.  The Bible contrasts divine wisdom which comes from God, and worldly wisdom which ultimately comes from Satan (James 3:15-17).  Divine wisdom is the knowledge necessary to perform a task in conformity to God’s standards and values.  Biblical wisdom is based on God’s revelation in the Bible and leads to moral uprightness.  The wise man “will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel” (Prov. 1:5; cf. 2:5); however, “fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7b).  The fool rejects the wisdom of God in Scripture which leads to salvation and righteous living.  The fool can be educated or uneducated, rich or poor, white or black, old or young, male or female.  He is friendly toward the world and its philosophies and values that promote human wisdom and accomplishments.  “A fool is not necessarily one who is marked by a low iq but one who leaves God out of his consciousness…The fool is the man who does not take God into consideration in every area of his life.”[2]

The word [fool] is used in Scripture with respect to moral more than to intellectual deficiencies. The “fool” is not so much one lacking in mental powers, as one who misuses them; not one who does not reason, but reasons wrongly. In Scripture the “fool” primarily is the person who casts off the fear of God and thinks and acts as if he could safely disregard the eternal principles of God’s righteousness (Ps. 14:1; Prov. 14:9; Jer. 17:11; etc.). Yet in many passages, especially in Proverbs, the term has its ordinary use and denotes one who is rash, senseless, or unreasonable. The expression “you fool” (Matt. 5:22) is used in the moral sense, means “wicked,” and seems to be equivalent to judging one as worthy of everlasting punishment.[3]

       The fool, according to Solomon, is a fool by choice and never by chance.  He can stop being a fool anytime he’s ready to learn and apply God’s word.  He makes himself a fool by the way he thinks, and is identified as a fool by the way he speaks and by his behavior.  Over time, folly can be so ingrained into a person that neither kindness nor suffering can remove it from them.  Here are some biblical facts about the fool:

  1. The fool is a fool by choice and never by chance (Prov. 1:22-33).  “How long, O naive ones, will you love being simple-minded? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”(Prov. 1:22).  “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind”(Prov. 18:2; cf. 14:9).  He can stop being a fool anytime he’s ready to learn and apply God’s word.
  2. The fool can be recognized by his outward behavior.  “Even when the fool walks along the road, his sense is lacking and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool” (Eccl. 10:3). 
  3. The fool loves to slander others.  “He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool” (Prov. 10:18).  Slander is the intentional circulation of a falsehood about another for the purpose of destroying their character. 
  4. Wickedness is like a game to fool, and it thrills him to do evil.  “Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool, and so is wisdom to a man of understanding”(Prov. 10:23).
  5. A fool can spout proverbial wisdom, but it has no meaning to him personally.  “Like a thorn which falls into the hand of a drunkard, so is a proverb in the mouth of fools”(Prov. 26:9; cf. 15:2, 7).  There are people who have some biblical knowledge, but because they are a fool it becomes distorted and twisted to their own harm and the harm of others.  “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are the snare of his soul”(Prov. 18:7; cf. 10:8, 10). 
  6. Children are naturally bent toward foolishness and the loving parent seeks to discipline it out of them.  “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him”(Prov. 22:15).  “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother”(Prov. 29:15). 
  7. The foolish child rejects his parent’s discipline.  “A fool rejects his father’s discipline, but he who regards reproof is sensible”(Prov. 15:5).
  8. Over time, as the fool becomes an adult, his folly becomes entrenched in his heart and he is very resistant to any external pressures to change.  “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Prov. 17:10).  “Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him” (Prov. 27:22). 
  9. The fool is a grief to his father and mother.  “A wise son makes a father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother”(Prov. 10:1; cf. 15:20).  “He who sires a fool does so to his sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy”(Prov. 17:21; cf. 19:13).
  10. The fool ruins his own life and fights against God.  “The foolishness of man ruins his way, and his heart rages against the LORD”(Prov. 19:3).
  11. Fools like to argue with others without a just cause.  “Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel” (Prov. 20:3).  It’s better to avoid the fool rather than pursue conflict with him.  “When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest” (Prov. 29:9; cf. 20:23). 
  12. Fools are arrogant and often storm through life without consideration of others.  “A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is arrogant and careless”(Prov. 14:16).
  13. Those who employ a fool feel the painful effects of his stupidity.  “Like an archer who wounds everyone, so is he who hires a fool or who hires those who pass by”(Prov. 26:10).
  14. Fools repeat the same ugly acts over and over.  “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly”(Prov. 26:11).
  15. Fools have no control of their emotions.  “A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back”(Prov. 29:11; cf. 25:28). 
  16. Fools pursue worldly pleasure and ruin themselves.  “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Eccl. 7:4). 
  17. The words of the wise are gracious, whereas the words of the fool express wickedness.  “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him; the beginning of his talking is folly and the end of it is wicked madness” (Eccl. 10:12-13).
  18. The person who befriends a fool causes himself harm.  “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20). 

Dealing with the Fool:

       Wise men often do not answer the fool because he’s not teachable; though there are times the fool needs to be corrected so that his false estimation of himself does not go unchecked.  Wise men leave the presence of the fool, as there is no benefit to his company.  When one encounters a fool, there are several things one should do depending on the encounter. 

  1. Once a fool is identified, don’t provoke him, or you will bring grief on yourself.  “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty, but the provocation of a fool is heavier than both of them” (Prov. 27:3). 
  2. Avoid speaking in the presence of a fool, or at least keep your words few.  “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Prov. 23:9).  Fools despise wisdom, so they despise those who speak and live by wisdom. 
  3. Don’t answer the fool in the midst of his foolishness.  “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him” (Prov. 26:4).  It is foolish to try to correct the fool, and is itself a display of folly that reveals a lack of biblical understanding.
  4. There are times to address the fool so that he does not think himself wise.  “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:5).  This type of correction does not seek to correct the fool, but only his false estimation of himself.  Wisdom discerns when to answer the fool. 
  5. Lastly, make the conscious decision to leave the presence of the fool in order to spare yourself any pain.  “Leave the presence of a fool, or you will not discern words of knowledge” (Prov. 14:7).  This is because “the foolishness of fools is deceit” and there is no truth in their speech (Prov. 14:8b). 

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Related article: Biblical Wisdom  

[1] Allen C. Myers, “Fool”, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 390.

[2] J. Dwight Pentecost, Designed to Be Like Him: Understanding God’s Plan for Fellowship, Conduct, Conflict, and Maturity (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 55.

[3] Merrill Frederick Unger, R. K. Harrison, Howard Frederic Vos et al., “Fool”, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).