No sooner is Saul installed as the king of Israel, than he begins his descent from power. Saul commits a series of disastrous errors. First, he fails to wait for Samuel at Gilgal to perform the sacrifice before his army goes to war against the Philistines. Saul arrogantly assumes to himself the right to offer a sacrifice to God. Thus, Samuel, who soon shows up on the scene, says to Saul…
You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you. (1 Samuel 13:13-14)
One interesting thing to note about this is that Samuel is no more of a Levitical priest than Saul. According to the instructions in the Torah, neither one of them has the right to offer sacrifices to the Lord; Saul is a Benjaminite and Samuel is an Ephraimite. Notice also that we read nothing in this section of 1 Samuel about sacrifices being offered in the tabernacle. However, Samuel is in an unusual position. Perhaps he has the right to offer sacrifices to the Lord because he was dedicated to the Lord’s service as an infant. Thus, we have seen Samuel over the course of this book take on the roles of judge, priest, and prophet. He is truly a unique character in all of Scripture.
I wonder: how many of us miss the Lord’s fullest blessings and wonderful plans for our lives because we fail to wait, just like Saul, and we rashly take to ourselves jobs that the Lord does not intend for us? Thankfully, though there was to be no second chance for Saul, there is for us, even this day and this moment if we will turn to the Lord and wait upon him.
We see the second step in Saul’s downward spiral in 1 Samuel 14. Here we are introduced to his son Jonathan who bravely wins a battle against the Philistines almost single-handedly. However, when Saul and Jonathan are parted, Saul commits a rash act and says, “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.” We can already guess the outcome of this before it happens. Jonathan, not knowing of his father’s curse, eats honey that day. When Saul realizes that things are going wrong for him and his men, he guesses that perhaps someone has violated his command to fast. It is then that Saul commits another rash act. He says, “Come here, all you leaders of the people; and let us find out how this sin has arisen today. For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, even if it is in my son Jonathan, he shall surely die!” When it is discovered that Jonathan has indeed broken the fast, it is only because the people speak up for him that his life is spared.
The third step in Saul’s downward fall takes place in 1 Samuel 15. Here Saul breaks a clear command. Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has decided to wipe out the Amalekites. Thus, Saul is commanded to go to war against them and not spare any person or animal. Saul fails to do this. He spares King Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, and all that is valuable. When Samuel confronts Saul about this, Saul tries to make out that he has obeyed the Lord. The problem is that he has not obeyed completely. He says that he has spared the best sheep and cattle for the purpose of a sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel’s response is classic: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Samuel finishes the job for Saul by executing King Agag with the sword. Then we read that Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death. Samuel grieved over Saul, and the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
However, the Lord urges Samuel not to allow his grief to continue forever. It is time to move on and anoint another king, regardless of what Saul may think of this action. Thus, Samuel is led by the Lord to the household of Jesse in Bethlehem. Samuel knows from the Lord that he is to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king of Israel. Samuel assumes it is the eldest but the Lord tells him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
I believe part of the goal of the spiritual life is to learn to see things as the Lord sees them. All the means of grace (Scripture, prayer, the Church, worship, and sacraments) are means to that end of learning to see life as God sees it, looking at the heart of things instead of simply seeing the outward appearance.
After working his way through all but one of the sons of Jesse, Samuel is disappointed that not one of them is the right person to be anointed as king. “Are all your sons here?” he asks.
Jesse responds, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”
This is a poignant reminder that God’s person is often found in the most unlikely place.
When David arrives, Samuel notices that he is ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes. The Lord instructs Samuel to rise and anoint David, for he is the one. Thus, Samuel does as the Lord tells him to do, and the spirit of the Lord comes mightily on David from that day forward. We shall soon see that the operation of the spirit in David will be something more than the operation of the same spirit in Saul, for David will become a man after God’s own heart.
From this point on, the spirit of the Lord departs from Saul and an evil spirit torments him. At the recommendation of his servants, Saul seeks a person to play music for him to soothe his troubled soul. They find just the right man in David. “And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Samuel 16:23).
In 1 Samuel 17, we will read a different account of how Saul and David first met. However, for now, let us consider this theme of obedience, something quite lacking in Saul’s life. C. S. Lewis has this to say on the matter….
But when we have said that God commands things only because they are good, we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience. The content of our obedience—the thing we are commanded to do—will always be something intrinsically good, something we ought to do even if (by an impossible supposition) God had not commanded it. But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backward, and returns.
Treading Adam’s dance backward…that is what Jesus has done perfectly for us. When we receive Christ’s perfect obedience and his perfect sacrifice as a gift, then he enables us also to tread Adam’s dance backward.