By Alyssa Roat, Crosswalk.com
King Saul was the first king of Israel in the Bible. When the Israelites demanded a king, God instructed the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul. However, Saul disobeyed God and proved unfit to be king.
Saul’s story is one of great drama, especially his relationship with one of the most well-known figures in the Bible, David. Though Saul’s story doesn’t end well for him, we can learn from his triumphs and failures.
Who Was King Saul in the Bible?
Saul was not born to royal parents. He was from the tribe of Benjamin, and in his own words, “Am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Samuel 9:21).
However, there was no royal family from which a king could have been selected. Until that time, Israel had been ruled on and off by judges, during a tumultuous few hundred years that are recorded in the book of Judges.
Israel was not intended to have a king; God was to be King. However, the Israelites had devolved into debauchery. The book of Judges ends with horrifying stories of violence and immorality and the echoing refrain “in those days Israel had no king” (Judges 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) pointing not only to the lack of a human king but the lack of regard for the Lord as King.
Saul’s father, Kish, was “a man of standing” (1 Samuel 9:1). Saul himself was an impressive man physically, “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). If someone was to be king, outwardly, Saul looked like a good candidate.
What Did King Saul Do?
Saul’s story begins in 1 Samuel, the book that follows the book of Judges in the Bible. 1 Samuel 8 records the people of Israel demanding that their spiritual leader, the prophet Samuel, give them a king “like all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). Samuel at first resisted, but the Lord told him, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Listen to them and give them a king” (1 Samuel 8:7, 1 Samuel 8:22).
When Saul and Samuel met, Saul was off searching for his father’s donkeys that had gone missing. After a long search, he and his servant were passing through Samuel’s town and decided to ask the seer for advice on finding the animals (1 Samuel 9:8).
The day before, God had told Samuel He would be sending the man He intended to be king. “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me” (1 Samuel 9:16).
Saul accepted the first secret anointing in 1 Samuel 10:1, but when the time came for the public selection by lot, he hid among the supplies, and God had to tell the people where to find him (1 Samuel 10:22).
At first, many rejected Saul’s leadership, until he dramatically mustered Israel and delivered the city of Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-11). He was then confirmed as king in 1 Samuel 11:15.
It looked like Saul would be a great king of military might, leading Israel. His reign was indeed marked by many military victories. However, his decline began in 1 Samuel 13.
Why Was He a Bad King?
In 1 Samuel 13, a large force of Philistines assembled to fight against Saul’s armies. The Israelites quaked in fear. When Samuel failed to show up at the appointed time, Saul panicked and offered the sacrifice to the Lord himself, in direct disobedience of the laws of Moses.
Samuel rebuked him in 1 Samuel 13:13-14. “‘You have done a foolish thing,’ Samuel said. ‘You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.’”
As king, Saul did some good things, bringing Israel together as one to fight against their enemies. However, he proved increasingly arrogant and heedless of God’s will.
God told Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites, but instead, Saul took some of their best livestock as plunder and let their king live (1 Samuel 15). He then proceeded to lie to Samuel about it.
When David distinguished himself as a warrior, Saul favored him—until Saul grew jealous. When it was clear God was with David, Saul went mad with jealousy and wasted his time and resources trying to chase down and kill David rather than defend Israel. Then, when faced with the might of the Philistines, Saul sought out a medium in Endor to try to communicate with the now-deceased Samuel—breaking even more of God’s laws (1 Samuel 28).
In the end, Saul was a bad king not because he was weak, or incompetent, or had some other shortcoming. Rather, Saul failed because he did not trust God. From the beginning, when he hid from God’s calling to be king, to taking matters into his own hands with the sacrifice rather than trusting God, to disobeying God and keeping plunder for himself, to losing his head to jealousy, to turning to the occult, Saul, again and again, trusted his way above God’s way.
What Happened to Him?
By the time Saul sought out the medium, it was too late. His fate was sealed. In 1 Samuel 31, the Philistines decimated the Israelite army. Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua were killed, and Saul was critically wounded. Rather than be killed by the Philistines, Saul took his own life (1 Samuel 31:4).
Saul’s bright future guttered out with dishonor, defeat, and suicide. His spiraling path, courtesy of his disobedience, ended in disaster for himself and his sons.
Saul was then succeeded as king by the man he hated so much, David, the shepherd boy who killed a giant with a sling and a stone through faith in God. The youngest son of a shepherd, because he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), became Israel’s greatest king, in direct contrast to Saul.
What Can We Learn from King Saul?
Saul was set up for success. Chosen by God, anointed by Samuel, blessed with kingly looks, he should have been a great king.
However, as God tells Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
We can learn several things from Saul.
First, we learn that success and good leadership do not come from any inherent traits. Rather, if we want to truly lead or live our lives well, we must obey the Lord and listen to His will, not our own.
Second, we learn to proceed with humility. No matter what we achieve or what position we attain, even if it feels unshakeable or ordained by God, it can still be taken away. We must remember that all we possess is from God. Giving way to pride will only lead to destruction (Proverbs 16:18).
Another lesson we can learn is the destructive power of jealousy. Saul got so distracted chasing after David that his kingdom fell into ruin. If Saul had focused on himself and trusted God to do what He would with David, Saul might have salvaged some of his crumbling rule.
Saul is contrasted with David, a man who sought the Lord’s will. Although David was far from perfect, he strove to follow God. When we read about David and Saul, we see that success and failure do not depend on ourselves, but rather on the God in whom we put our trust.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/anthonyjhall
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.
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