Last week, I said that Saul “gets a bad rap.” It might be more appropriate to say that most of us fail to appreciate Saul for the complex and layered individual the Old Testament presents, or to consider the difficult problems he raises.
The matter of Saul revolves around a single question: Was Saul bad in the beginning?
I do not mean this in the sense of total depravity – of course Saul began badly because each of us “go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3). Rather, I mean to evaluate his actions and attitudes as king to try and see whether he was always a bad king, by the standards by which the Scripture judges kings.
The answer, of course, is that he was not. There have been some reconstructionist attempts to paint some of Saul’s early, well-intentioned actions to have been as vile and self-serving as the worst of his later villainy. But they presume too much upon hindsight, for nowhere does the text support or suggest this.
God called Saul. God chose Saul as king, and God extended to him the offer which he would later extend to each dynasty that would come after him. An understanding of this truth is critical to our analysis of Saul’s rise and fall. If we are to avoid Saul’s fate, we must come to a clear understanding of where he was when he began.
Consider Saul’s auspicious beginnings:
And when Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said unto him, Behold the man whom I spake to thee of! this same shall reign over my people. – 1 Samuel 9:17 KJV
Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance? – 1 Samuel 10:1 KJV
So Saul is not an accident – he is not a mistake that God later corrects via the Davidic line (many of whom would be much more wicked than Saul, by any human reckoning). He wasn’t even, as I have often heard him described, “Israel’s best” later replaced with “God’s best” once Israel had learned their lesson. Saul was chosen of God and called to a specific ministry: in this case, the captaincy of the Lord’s inheritance.
That should be terrifying.
Now, a precedent exists for God’s setting wicked men in places of authority and using them to execute his will. We find numerous such examples both in Scripture and in the larger scope of history. Saul, however, is no Nebuchadnezzar. The book of 1 Samuel paints for us a picture of young Saul that is both humble and sincere:
And Saul answered and said, 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? wherefore then speakest thou so to me? – 1 Samuel 9:21 KJV
Later after Saul has manged enough hubris to disobey God’s direct command and then erect a monument to himself, Samuel reminds him of just how far he’s fallen:
And Samuel said, 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
By Samuel’s own admission, Saul was once small in his own eyes. In his early days, he possessed the sufficient perspective to grasp how incredible it was that God would condescend to him, a farmer of the disgraced men of Gibeah from the disgraced tribe of Benjamin.
So what went wrong? We’ll try to answer that question over the next few weeks as we look at the circumstances which led to Saul’s kingship and the conditions which led to his fall.