I think Saul gets a bad rap.
Saul is one of the most complex, interesting, and tragic figures in the Old Testament. He’s a major player in much of 1 Samuel, and yet we rarely think of him as any more than a villain in the David story. He’s up there with Goliath and the Philistines and Absalom: a nemesis that our hero, David, must overcome to attain or keep his throne.
On some level that’s probably okay, since David is a major player in the Bible. In addition to being a type and ancestor of the Messiah, David is the second-most mentioned individual in the Bible, after Jesus Christ Himself. But to take the book of 1 Samuel and make it all about David is to do ourselves and the text a disservice. There’s a lot we can learn from Saul.
A close examination of Saul’s life raises some interesting questions in the light of the remainder of Scripture. By almost any measurable standard, Saul is a better king than most of the kings of the Divided Kingdom period – certainly more righteous than any that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had. If we compare him to many of David’s heirs – men like Manasseh and Amon – he comes away almost squeaky-clean. Even compared to David, Saul’s list of transgressions are arguably less heinous.
And yet, God took the throne away from Saul’s family and gave it to the line of David forever.
Yes, most of that has to do with David’s relationship with God and the Davidic Covenant. But it’s also a potent reminder that God does not grade on a curve: we are each of us responsible before God for our own actions, regardless of the way in which He appears to be dealing with those worse than us.
Saul begins so full of promise, yet fails so catastrophically in the end. Maybe it’s time we started asking why. Maybe it’s time we remember that Saul is his own person with his own story, and that that story deserves the same kind of attention we give to David and Solomon. True, the story of Saul would be incomplete without David – no less so than the story of David without Saul. But the crux of his story, the qualities that lead to his calling and kingship and the mistakes that lead to his falling and troubling, these are clear before David ever comes upon the scene.
Why should we study Saul? Because in a very real way he is all of us. He is every parent who has started with good intentions only to lose their family to their anger. He is every child raised under a roof with a Bible only to rebel and lose their way in adulthood. He is every well-intentioned pastor and leader who loses sight of the forest of ministry for the tree of self. Saul’s story is more than an illustration of the age-old adage, “power corrupts” (in fact I would challenge the veracity of this statement in the light of Scripture).
There’s a deeper truth here, one which we’ll have to plum the depths to find. How can a man be “little in his own eyes” and yet be so full of himself? How can a man be so clearly chosen and called of God, and yet shipwreck upon the shores of self? Does God make mistakes, or do even the failures of His anointed have their perfect place in His plan?
These are questions I will endeavor to answer over the coming weeks, as we take a long, hard look at one of the Old Testament’s most interesting characters. I hope you’ll join me, Bible in hand, as we try to understand Saul’s mistakes so that we, like wise men, might avoid them.