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The first of Saul's tragic sins
Saul's life was marked by four tragic sins and three of them were the reasons why God cut off his house so that he did not become head of a royal dynasty, for we learn that no descendent of Saul ever sat on the throne of Israel. His first tragic sin occurred as the army was gathered at Gilgal,4 a town belonging to Benjamin, 11 kilometres north of Jerusalem and 5 kilometres from Gibeah, where they were anticipating the promised arrival of Samuel to offer sacrifices before they went into battle. Becoming impatient, Saul presumed to officiate at the offerings. No sooner had he finished than Samuel arrived and asked, "What hast thou done?" (13:111). Samuel continued (vs 13): "Thou hast done foolishly, for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever." Samuel declared the Word of the Lord to Saul - the devastating truth that there would be no dynastic succession in Saul's case and even his son Jonathan would never wear the crown: "But now," Samuel continued in verse 14, "thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee."
This situation in chapter 13 appears to be quite different from that described in chapter 11 where Saul is Spirit-empowered when he becomes angry and forcefully calls all Israel to fight the Ammonites. Here, Saul is not said to be empowered by the Spirit, and he is certainly less forceful when calling the nation to war. The Israelites are summoned, but it seems as though far fewer than the earlier 330,000 show up and those who do present themselves for battle are tentative in doing so. When the size of the Philistine army is known the Israelites are terrified and the people begin to desert, hiding in caves and thickets, in cliffs, cellars (interestingly, here the New Revised Standard Version renders the translation as tombs - an Israelite would have to be in a desperate state to hide in a tomb) and pits. We recognise this parlous state of the Jewish nation from previous Scripture (cf. Judges 6:1-6), but this does not make the situation any more tolerable. When Saul seeks to gather his army, he summons the people to assemble at Gilgal, according to the instructions Samuel gave him when he was told he would be Israel's king (1 Samuel 10:82):
"And you shall go down before me to Gilgal; and behold, I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice peace offerings. You shall wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you should do"
Samuel's instructions are clear and specific and cannot be mis-understood: Saul is to go to Gilgal and wait for him to arrive and when Samuel arrives after seven days he will offer both the burnt offerings and the peace offerings and then show Saul what he should do. During this seven-day waiting period, Saul agonizes as he watches his army begin to vaporize as his soldiers desert in fear of their lives. Every day, as the situation grows increasingly more dangerous, soldiers flee, seeking to save themselves, some by fleeing across the Jordan (v7) while others are apparently willing to save themselves by joining with the Philistines (14:21) and those who remain with Saul are shaking in their boots. Now we read of Saul's folly and Samuel's rebuke (1 Samuel 13:8-152):
8 Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, "Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings." And he offered the burnt offering. 10 And it came about as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, that behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, "What have you done?" And Saul said, "Because I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, 12 therefore I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favor of the Lord.' So I forced myself and offered the burnt offering." 13 And Samuel said to Saul, "You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 "But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you." 15 Then Samuel arose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people who were present with him, about six hundred men.
Saul managed to make it through six days and most of the seventh, but when that seventh day began to draw to an end, he was at his wit's end and, as the people continued to scatter, he decided to take matters into his own hands and offer the burnt offering himself. He issued orders for the burnt offerings and the peace offerings to be brought to him and we find no mention in Scripture of any "minor" priest taking part in the offering. Saul clearly places great importance on this offering - but is it for the right reasons? In 1 Samuel 7, all Israel gathered at Mizpah to repent and renew their covenant commitment to God and the Philistines misinterpreted the gathering and assumed there was some military intent behind it. The Philistines encircled the Israelites at Mizpah and were just about to attack as Samuel was offering the burnt offering (1 Samuel 7:9-102):
9 And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it for a whole burnt offering to the Lord; and Samuel cried to the Lord for Israel and the Lord answered him. 10 Now Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, and the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day against the Philistines and confused them, so that they were routed before Israel.
We can see how easily Saul may have attributed this offering as the means to Israel's deliverance, just as the Israelites in Eli's day looked upon the ark of God as a kind of magical secret weapon in their "rabbit's foot theology," as the means of assuring God's action on Israel's behalf. Instead of keeping his eyes fixed upon the promises of His Lord and God, and having also forgotten that numbers of men are not important to God in bringing about his victories, Saul is eager to "practice religion" and get the sacrifice offered, with or without Samuel.
Inevitably, at the very moment Saul finished sacrificing the burnt offering, Samuel arrived. It seems clear that, had Saul waited those few minutes, Samuel would have arrived, still on time and been available to offer both the burnt offerings and the peace offerings. Saul went out to greet Samuel, and his greeting betrayed his guilt. It was not Saul who rebuked Samuel for being too late, but Samuel who demanded an explanation from Saul for his behaviour. Saul's explanation fell flat as he tried to tell Samuel that the people were deserting him and that the prophet did not come within the appointed time. He pointed out that the Philistines were assembling for battle at Michmash, making his actions necessary lest he be attacked while at Gilgal. Though he really did not want to do what he did, he simply had to, so he "forced himself" to offer the burnt offering. How this sounds like the standard excuse every sinner trots out when caught in blatant rebellion against God's ways!
Samuel was not impressed as his direct and stern words show. Saul's actions were foolish - because they were wilful disobedience to Samuel's clear and direct orders. They were also foolish because they accomplished the exact opposite of what Saul thought because he was trapped in the same disobedience, disbelief, and "rabbit's foot theology," that brought about the demise of Eli, Hophni and Phineas and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines. Saul's disobedience cost him his dynasty and, though his reign will not immediately be terminated, his sons will never sit on his throne. If Saul had only obeyed the command of God his kingdom would have endured forever, but now his kingdom will die with him. God had already sought out and chosen a man whose heart was in tune with His to be Saul's replacement and all of this is the direct result of Saul's disobedience.
Samuel's parting here is quite different from that described in 1 Samuel 15:24-31. Here, Saul does not appear to be shaken by Samuel's words, and certainly he is not repentant. His reaction is similar to Eli's, when the boy-prophet Samuel informed him of God's coming judgement against his house (1 Samuel 3), and all he could manage was a careless, God-dishonouring, response (v182): "It is the Lord; let Him do what seems good to Him." Saul managed the same matter-of-fact reaction, as Samuel departed to Gibeah, by busying himself with the numbering of his skimpy rag-tag army, now composed of some 600 men.
This incident was not the "beginning of the end" for king Saul; it was the end. His kingdom will endure for a number of years, but it will not endure beyond his death. Sadly, it is only two years into his reign, yet Saul's destiny as king is sealed. Considering the way in which today's liberal, wishy-washy, Christians disregard God's instructions in so many ways many would probably believe that Saul's actions are almost understandable, and that God's response seems very severe. Why all the fuss about this one incident, this one occasion in which Saul fouled up? We need to consider the seriousness of Saul's actions and some of the implications and applications the text.
First, we need to understand this passage in the light of what God first declared about kings in the Book of Deuteronomy (17:14-202).:
14 "When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,' 15 you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman. 16 "Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, 'You shall never again return that way.' 17 "Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself. 18 "Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 "And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left; in order that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.
We particularly notice verses 18-20 which clearly instructs the king who is to ascend the throne to write a copy of the law for himself in the presence of the Levitical priests. This seems to imply a very clear "separation of powers." The king has great authority but, when it comes to the law, he is not only subject to it, but he is to listen to the Levitical priests as to its meaning. The Old Testament Book of the Law is the king's textbook, and the Levitical priests are his teachers or tutors. This Law is to be his constant guide, the basis for his rule. He is to read and re-read it all the days of his life. This not only gives the king the wisdom to rule, and the principles on which his kingdom is established (the constitution of the kingdom), but it keeps the king from becoming puffed up with pride and elevating himself above his brethren (v 20). This constant reading of the Law is to keep the king from disobedience of the Law, even in some small way. Devotion to the Law will prolong the king's days, for both he and his descendants (v 20).
This begins to explain the severity of God's response to Saul's disobedience and the importance of resisting any moves towards Antinomianism (literally "against law") which have infiltrated the church repeatedly through New Testament history. Saul did not heed this instruction to kings set down in Deuteronomy and very likely reiterated and clarified by Samuel:
24 And Samuel said to all the people, "Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? Surely there is no one like him among all the people." So all the people shouted and said, "Long live the king!" 25 Then Samuel told the people the ordinances of the kingdom, and wrote them in the book and placed it before the Lord. And Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his house (1 Samuel 10:24-252).
In addition to these more general instructions to Saul as Israel's king, there are the very specific instructions (literally "a command") of 1 Samuel 10:8. Saul has no excuse; his sacrifice is a wilful act of disobedience, for which he loses his kingdom. There are important principles and lessons we can learn from 1 Samuel for if, like Saul, we lose sense of our calling, we are headed for trouble. The people want a king to judge them, and ultimately this means they want a king to deliver them from their bondage to the nations surrounding them. Samuel makes considerable effort to communicate to Saul what God has appointed him to do, but it does not seem long at all before Saul's sense of calling becomes blurred. Our text shows Saul gradually beginning to fulfil all the warnings given in the Scriptures regarding the manner in which a king - chosen by the people's criteria - would begin to act. As we see later in his reactions towards other servants of God, and particularly David, sin causes him to lose sight of things that he seemed at first to grasp, and they are replaced with pride, jealousy, and anger, to the point where he is willing to kill even his own son, Jonathan, and the succeeding king, David. We can compare the writings of the apostle Paul and detect a man with a deep sense of his calling and a great commitment to carry it out - to the very end (cf. Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:15; 2 Timothy 4:7-8). Paul speaks a great deal of our calling as well, and he challenges us to live up to that calling - both our common calling (to which every saint is called - cf. Romans 1:6-7; 8:28, 30; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 9; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and our individual calling (1 Corinthians 7:17). In comparison, Saul does not show signs of genuine repentance from the beginning of his four serious sins and thus begins the gradual slide into degradation until he plumbs the depths and consults the Witch of Endor (1Samuel 28) - even though he has apparently followed God's instruction and cleared the land of mediums (28:3)! Each and every Christian has been "called," and should each have a unique sense of their calling, a general sense of where God has saved him (or her) to use our gifts and talents in the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-12; Matthew 25) and a more specific sense of one's task and contribution in the body of Christ. Sadly, too many Christians seem to have lost their sense of calling, and, like Saul, vie between "hiding in the baggage" of the church and its ministry, rather than taking up their fair share, or gradually descend into searches for alternative spiritual kicks or guidance, such as a "Toronto experience," "Word-Faith," or "Promise Seekers" spirituality on demand.
God's commands serve as a test of our faith and obedience. But far to many Christians take God's commands too lightly. Jesus instructed His disciples to "teach them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). How many of Christ's commands do we take seriously today? As Saul also proves, emergencies are not excuses for disobedience to God's commands, but a test of our faith and obedience. God often tests us by taking us to the limit as well, or even to the breaking point. When we reach "our limit," our faith in God becomes apparent. When we come to the end of our own resources, we must then trust in God. God takes Saul "to the limit" by delaying Samuel's arrival to the last moments, but Saul cannot wait. He is convinced his situation is an "emergency," and as such, the rules can be set aside. At these moments, when we are pressed to our limit, our faith and obedience are tested by whether or not we keep God's commands, whether or not we obey Him.
Twice the Book of Proverbs speaks of the "lion in the road" (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). This is the sluggard's compelling reason for avoiding a task he really does not want to do. Emergency situations, where disaster seems imminent and breaking the rules seems expedient, may be nothing more than "lions in the road." We may be willing to make exceptions to God's commands, but God is not. We must beware of allowing a crisis to become the excuse for our disobedience. Saul's disobedience regarding the sacrifices at Gilgal is no sudden sin and a complete shock to all. It is the logical, almost inevitable outcome of a lifestyle of disobedience. This crisis only shows Saul up for who he is (or is not) and this is the way it is with us too! We cannot help but notice that we are given no evidence of spirituality in Saul prior to his becoming king, whereas David was a young man who learned to depend upon God while a shepherd boy, left alone with his flock. David learned to trust God and to worship him and the history of walking with God, before he became king, continued afterward. Although God puts His Spirit on Saul and anoints him to carry out his duties as king, Saul's apparent lack of godly disciplines in his life show, especially at Gilgal when the tests of faith come upon him. Those who try to excuse Saul and suggest that he was merely guilty of "never being sure of his role or responsibilities" forget that the same spiritual errors which led to his downfall are equally evident today, for many in the church try and usurp other peoples ministries, as Saul usurped Samuel's and later opposed Jonathan and David when they were fulfilling their calling to God and putting Him first.
We can learn from Saul's example that God's judgment may be pronounced long before its consequences are apparent and He carries it out. God has rejected Saul and his kingdom will not endure (1 Samuel 13:14) yet, even though Saul reigns for many years before he dies, we may be certain that God's judgment is sure, even though it may be some time in coming. That is the experience of Saul, and the coming wrath of God will be in the same manner. Satan's doom has already been pronounced, and yet we still find him opposing our Lord and His church. Nevertheless, God's judgment is sure, even though it is not immediate.
We have more evidence that God works through less than perfect people. We should never cease to wonder at the kind of people God uses to accomplish His purposes and fulfill His promises. Saul is one of those people we might have chosen because of his appearance but, in spite of all of his weaknesses and sins, God used Saul to deliver Israel from bondage to the surrounding nations (1 Samuel 14:47-48). All through history, God has chosen to use the "weak and foolish" things of this world (1 Corinthians 1:27), confounding the wise and bringing glory to Himself. If God can use a man like Saul, we can be assured that He can use us too. How grateful we should be that God is not limited to using perfect people. This does not excuse our imperfections or our sins, but it does give us hope that God can, and does, use frail, sinful people to accomplish His purposes.
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