SAUL’S FLAWS 1 Samuel 13–15
“Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has rejected you as king” (1 Sam. 15:23). Too often success breeds pride. When that happens, there’s a real danger that we will no longer rely on—or obey—the Lord.
Facing a powerful Philistine army, Saul panicked and officiated at a sacrifice rather than waiting for Samuel (13:1–15). Yet the poorly equipped Israelites (vv. 16–22) led by Jonathan, Saul’s son, attacked (14:1–14) and routed the enemy (vv. 15–23). The intervention of the army saved Jonathan, who unknowingly violated Saul’s command (vv. 24–52). Ironically, the man who was willing to execute his son for disobeying him unintentionally, knowingly disobeyed God, and was rejected by the Lord (15:1–35).
Understanding the Text
“Their situation was critical” 1 Sam. 13:1–7. The Philistines were the major enemy of Israel during this era. They controlled the coastlands. Archeologists have found evidence of Philistine outposts as far inland as the Jordan valley. When Saul’s son attacked one of these outposts, the Philistines assembled a great army to put down the Hebrew uprising. Earlier the men of Israel had responded to Saul’s call and turned out to fight the Ammonites (11:7). Now they ran and hid, and some even left the country. Many in Saul’s tiny standing army of 3,000 began to desert. In describing the Ammonite battle the text says Israel was moved by “terror [awe of, respect for] of the Lord.” Now all they felt was fear of the Philistines. The Old Testament rightly says that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). It’s foolish to lose sight of the fact that God is more powerful than any human foe. “You acted foolishly” 1 Sam. 13:8–15. Earlier Samuel had instructed Saul to meet him at Gilgal before any major engagement, and to wait there seven days (cf. 10:8). Waiting now became too much for Saul, who panicked as he saw more of his tiny force desert. Rather than wait for Samuel, Saul himself sacrificed to the Lord. Saul sinned in officiating at the sacrifice. Only priests were to serve the altar. By acting as he did, Saul disobeyed Samuel’s command to wait and God’s prohibition against any but Aaron’s descendants offering sacrifices. Here “foolish” is a strong word, implying not a lack of understanding but a lack of moral character. Under pressure Saul showed that he was deeply flawed. The text adds an ironic note. Saul later counted and found that he still had 600 men with him. This was twice as many as the 300 with which Gideon had earlier routed a similar enemy horde. Weapons of iron 1 Sam. 13:16–22. It’s true that Israel lacked weapons. The Philistine secret of working iron gave them unquestioned military superiority. But Gideon defeated his enemy with 300 pitchers, 300 torches, and 300 trumpets. If only Saul had remembered what God had done, he might have been less fearful and more willing to obey. “That will be our sign” 1 Sam. 14:1–14. The text introduces Jonathan, Saul’s son, who attacked a Philistine frontline post after seeking and receiving a sign that “the Lord has given them into our hands.” Jonathan and his armor-bearer were outnumbered too. But Jonathan, unlike Saul, trusted God completely and had no fear. “Withdraw your hand” 1 Sam. 14:15–23. After Jonathan’s victory, God threw the Philistine camp into a panic. Saul, hearing the commotion, called for a priest to use the ephod [not “ark”] to consult God. As the tumult across the valley increased, Saul couldn’t wait, and told the priest to “withdraw your hand.” That is, he said, “Don’t bother,” and rushed off to battle. Despite Saul’s behavior, the Lord helped Israel. The Philistines began to run away, and the Israelites who had hidden joined in the pursuit. “None of the troops tasted food” 1 Sam. 14:24–45. Saul uttered a curse on any Israelite who should eat until the battle was over. Jonathan did not hear this vow and tasted some honey he found during the battle. Saul’s command was unwise. His troops pursued the Philistines some 18 miles (from Micmash to Aijalon)! Afterward they were so exhausted that they butchered cattle and ate the meat on the spot. This eating of meat before the blood had been drained was a serious violation of Old Testament Law. When Saul was eager to go on and invade Philistine territory, the priest, whom Saul had rushed to consult earlier, insisted Saul ask God for guidance. But God gave no answer. (Many believe the priest carried a blank stone in the ephod as well as stones indicating yes and no.) Saul assumed that some sin was blocking the response. When lots were cast, Jonathan was chosen, and admitted violating his father’s command. Though Saul’s command had been unwise, when uttered as a curse it was binding, and disobedience was a sin. When Saul proposed executing Jonathan, the army refused to let Saul harm him. Again we sense irony. Saul was ready to kill his own son for disobeying his command. Yet Saul himself thought nothing of disobeying the Lord, Israel’s God and true King. “He fought valiantly” 1 Sam. 14:47–48. Most of the text is given to an analysis of Saul’s flaws. Two verses sum up his strengths. Saul was a valiant soldier, who did defeat Israel’s enemies. To the biblical writer, who gives only two verses to chronicle Saul’s victories, what counts is not Saul’s prowess but his pride. Not his accomplishments, but his personal failings. It’s the same today. The true measure of a man is not found in what he does, but in the kind of person that he is. “I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them” 1 Sam. 15:1–34. The final revealing incident describes Saul’s attack on the Amalekites. This invasion was divine punishment, and the city attacked was to be “devoted” to God. That is, all the people and animals of the area were to be killed, and no booty taken. Saul did attack. But he returned with vast herds and with a royal prisoner. God sent Samuel to confront the disobedient king. At first Saul insisted he had obeyed God. After all, the Amalekites had been destroyed. Finally Saul admitted that he had violated God’s command, and confessed that he had done so because he “was afraid of the people.” What a commentary. Saul, the king, was ruled by fear. He had feared the Philistine army. Now he was afraid of his own people. If only Saul had feared God, respect for the Lord would have freed him from the burden of fearing mere men. “Please honor me . . . before Israel” 1 Sam. 15:30. The verse is a fitting epitaph. A heartbroken and angry Samuel announced God’s final rejection of Saul. This disobedient king would establish no dynasty in Israel. And all Saul could think of when Samuel turned away is how it would look to his people! May God deliver us from caring more about what people think than what God thinks of us, and from the hypocrisy that such an attitude generates.
Saul and You (1 Sam. 15)
Some find reading about Saul frightening. Saul reminds them of their own weaknesses. Saul reflects their own flaws. And so they wonder. Perhaps like Saul they’ve gone too far. Might they too be rejected by God? Yet the story of Saul isn’t intended to frighten us. It’s in our Bible to encourage us. And to teach us how to avoid the pitfall that trapped Israel’s first, failed king. Saul’s basic problem was that he was unwilling to trust God, and so found it impossible to obey Him. Saul panicked when confronted by a massive Philistine force (1 Sam. 13). He forgot that God was able to deliver. Because he did not trust God to act in the deteriorating situation, Saul disobeyed the Lord. By the time we read this last story, Saul is even afraid of his own people. Once again Saul’s fear comes from a lack of trust, and is expressed as a failure to obey the Lord. The one thing that ruined Saul’s life and destroyed his future was his inability to trust God, expressed in his failure to obey. This is what’s so encouraging about Saul’s story. As we read it we come to understand the central issue in the spiritual life. Saul’s story teaches us that the one thing we must do is to trust God, and that trust will free us to obey. When you or I feel fear or sense panic, that’s the time to pause and remember who our God is. To think about His greatness. To remember His power. To meditate on His love. When we keep our hearts fixed on who God is, we trust ourselves to Him. And we obey.
Trust in God frees us to obey. And obedience protects us from Saul’s fate.