The Old Testament nation of Israel was ruled over by only three kings, after which time 10 of the tribes broke from Judah. Sometimes Judah and Israel were at war with each other, sometimes not, and each had a long line of kings that forgot God most of the time. But for a brief period Israel expanded its borders, defeated its enemies, and had a king on the throne like all the other nations. They thought they were winners.
Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness for 40 years. Joshua led them across the Jordan River and into the promised land of Canaan. The people feared and respected Joshua as they had Moses. He and the high priests conferred directly with God. Israel did not have a king nor did they need one; they were ruled by God himself, and he won their battles for them. Judges settled disputes among the general population, and major issues were brought before the priests who inquired of God. Samson was one such judge over Israel. This is how it was for several generations.
By the time of the prophet Samuel, Israel longed for a king. They demanded Samuel give them one, noting that every other nation had a king. It’s the same thing we still hear today – everybody else is doing it. God’s holy nation was the victim of peer pressure. Samuel warned them that a king would draft their sons into his army and send them to battle, and the daughters of Israel would serve in his palace. A king would tax the people and work them as slaves to build his empire and fatten the treasury. “We will have king as the other nations” they resolved. As Samuel laments to God about how the people have rejected his leadership, God consoles him. “It is not you they have rejected” God explains. “The people of Israel have rejected me.” At the command of God, Saul was anointed King over Israel.
The nation of Israel couldn’t have been happier. Saul was a young man, handsome, and head and shoulders taller than any other. He looked like the king. Early on he established a reputation of showing mercy, yet he was a mighty man of valor in battle. Israel had arrived; they had taken possession of the land, defeated their enemies, and at long last had a king on the throne. By the standards of this world they were successful. They were winners. But…
There was program on VH-1 for many years called “Behind the Music.” Each episode followed the rise of some megastar or band from their humble beginnings. Inevitably the narrator at some point, typically as the group thought they had arrived, would say “Then it all came crashing down.” Like a character in a Shakespeare play, suddenly Saul’s fatal flaw comes to light. Samuel had predicted a military victory, telling Saul to wait seven days and then meet him for a sacrifice. Saul waited the seven days, but then Samuel did not immediately appear. So he made an executive decision, offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving himself. The moment he is finished Samuel arrives, asking him what he has done. He lies (just a little) and claims he forced himself to do it, seeing how Samuel had not came and the crowd was starting to wander off. Saul was the king, but Samuel was still the prophet of God. Samuel had been raised by priests in the presence of the LORD. Saul’s sacrifice was not acceptable to God. Then things only got worse. Saul plainly disobeyed God’s command by not devoted conquered things to destruction, and by capturing King Agag alive (1 Sam 15). As Samuel approached, the first words out of Saul’s mouth were “I have kept the command of the LORD.” No, he had not.
All the things Saul did, or try to do, to David were after God had decided to remove his spirit from Saul and favor David instead. He came in and out of his right mind, madly jealous of David. This was the king Israel had asked for. Ironically after casting all of the mediums out of Israel, he sought a medium himself. Saul contacted Samuel after his death, to inquire what he should do. The first thing Samuel told him is that he shouldn’t be talking to dead people. He had to be reminded that God no longer favored him as king. Perhaps the moral of this story is to be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. The real lesson is about human nature. We live in a corrupt world affected by the curse. Humanity is broken, fallen from its first estate. No government or political leader will ever live up to a standard of perfection. The state will not be our salvation.
Israel’s next king is described as a man after God’s own heart. Next time: David.