Scripture: 1 Sam 16:1–13
The End of the Period of the Judges
Samuel had been serving as Israel’s judge and successfully initiated the reversal of spiritual and military decline due to the ineffectual rule of Eli the priest-judge at Shiloh. During that time, Israel had lost her ark to the Philistines, and people said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Sam 4–5, esp. 1 Sam 4:22). But God caused the Philistines so much trouble that after Eli died, the Philistines returned the ark (1 Sam 6).
Samuel took up the office of prophet-priest-judge and led the people in repentance. They subdued the Philistines at Mizpah when God’s presence on the battlefield panicked the Philistines (1 Sam 7:1–11). So “Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means ‘the stone of help’), for he said, ‘Up to this point the Lord has helped us!'” (1 Sam 7:12).
“Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the LORD’s powerful hand was raised against the Philistines … and there was peace between Israel and the Amorites” (1 Sam 7:13, 14). Samuel ruled them well as priest-judge (1 Sam 7:15–17). But like Eli before him, he raised a couple no-goods as sons, so the people feared what would happen when Samuel died (1 Sam 8:1–3).
A King After the People’s Hearts
So the people called for a king “just like all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:5). In itself, calling for a king wasn’t wrong. God had promised they would have a king one day (Gen 49:8–12), and he provided for it in Mosaic legislation (Deut 17). But wanting one “just like all the other nations have” wasn’t a great idea. And Samuel told them so (1 Sam 8:11–19): These kings, they’ll want your daughters for their harems, your sons for their armies, and your money for their palaces (1 Sam 8:11–17). The tithe belongs the Lord, but a king’s going to want it (1 Sam 8:17). If you go ahead with this, someday “you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the LORD will not help you” (1 Sam 8:18). “But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. ‘Even so, we still want a king they said'” (1 Sam 8:19).
Aggrieved, Samuel took this to the Lord, who told him, “Do as they say, and give them a king” (1 Sam 8:21). So God sent Samuel hunting for the king they were demanding. And he found Saul, a man from the violent and warlike Benjamite tribe (Judg 5:14; 20:21), the tribe that would later form the backbone of opposition to David (2 Sam 2–3; 16; 19–20). Sometimes this tribe didn’t look any better than Sodom (Gen 19; Judg 19), but that’s where Israel got her first king. God had Samuel anoint Saul as king (1 Sam 9–10), and he took office.
Well, at first Saul looked like a good deal. He was an impressive physical specimen, standing “head and shoulders above anyone else” (1 Sam 10:23). He apparently took great care to avoid what Samuel had warned the people about. Rather than building a palace, harem, and standing army, he just went back to farming until he was needed. And when the time came, he ably took up the military challenge of the Ammonites. So the people really opened their hearts to this new king (1 Sam 11:5–15). Oh, he was quite the man of the people.
But he proved to a petty, jealous, and carnal man. This eventually got him in trouble with God (1 Sam 13); so Samuel told Saul that God was done with him and his kingdom: “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart. The LORD has already appointed him to be the leader of his people” (1 Sam 13:14). And Saul’s rule went from bad to worse. He may still have enjoyed some victories over the Philistines (1 Sam 14), but God had rejected him (1 Sam 15).
A King After God’s Own Heart
Now it was time for Samuel to anoint a new king—the one God chose to replace Saul. According to an ancient prophecy, it had to be someone from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:8–12). So God sent him to the home of Jesse to find this new king. He was hunting for an Israelite king among the Moabitess Ruth’s grandsons! “Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely this is the LORD’s anointed!'” He must have stood tall like Saul had, but the Lord told Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height … the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:6–7).
Samuel worked his way down through Jesse’s sons until he ran out of choices. When Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse dismissively replied that his youngest was out herding sheep (1 Sam 16:11)—not bad training for leading Israel, if Moses had been any example (Exod 2). So Samuel called for him, and when David came in “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes,” God told Samuel, “This is the one; anoint him” (1 Sam 16:12). Samuel obeyed: he “took the horn full of olive oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers” (1 Sam 16:13).
What follows is both a positive and negative story of anointing: On a positive note, “The Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David from that day on.” On a negative note, “The Spirit of the LORD had left Saul, and the LORD sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear” (1 Sam 16:13–14).
Saul’s “depression and fear” turned him into a paranoid fool. David ended up serving in Saul’s palace, as a musician to soothe the maniac’s tormented soul (1 Sam 16:14–23) and as a giant killer (1 Sam 17). But that gave David a glowing reputation, which only made Saul so jealous that he started trying to assassinate his God-ordained successor (1 Sam 18). The next few chapters show David on the run among the peasants in the hill country and even among the Philistines on the coastal plains (1 Sam 19–27), but growing in popularity and power, while Saul slid further and further into the abyss.
Finally, faced with “the vast Philistine army, he became frantic with fear” (1 Sam 28:5). Samuel was now dead, so Saul tried speaking directly to the Lord to get some guidance. “But the LORD refused to answer him, either by dreams or by sacred lots or by the prophets’ (1 Sam 28:6). Just as he had earlier forced matters by making an illegitimate offering, Saul turned to even less legitimate means. He told his advisers, “Find a woman who is a medium, so I can go and ask her what to do” (1 Sam 28:7). He was off chasing seances, channelers, and occult sources for solutions that only a prophet could legitimately provide (Deut 18:9–20).
Nonetheless, God facilitated a message to Saul from the dead Samuel! It was this: God has given your kingdom to David and the lives of you and your sons to the Philistines (1 Sam 28:17–19). Saul collapsed in fear and hunger (1 Sam 28:20). Just what an illegal witch needed in her house—a dead, paranoid, maniacal king who sporadically killed witches (1 Sam 28:3, 9)! So she got him on his feet and on his way—to his death.
The panicked Saul went to the battle and ended up severely wounded. He didn’t want the Philistines to capture and torture him, so he told his armor bearer to kill him. But the soldier wouldn’t, so Saul and his armor bearer ended up committing suicide together. Just as Saul had heard in the witch’s house, his sons also died that day as the Philistines routed Israel (1 Sam 31:3–7). The abuse that Saul had feared to face alive, came to his corpse. The Philistines rounded up the royal corpses of Saul and sons, decapitated Saul’s corpse, and distributed his carcass and armor for public display on the wall at Beth-shan and in their pagan temple (1 Sam 31:8–10).
By his first military act as King, Saul had rescued the people of Jabesh-gilead from a horrible siege (1 Sam 11:1–11, esp. vv. 1–2). So when they learned what had happened to their hero, they mounted a rescue operation to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons so they could have an honorable burial back at the scene of his first military victory in Jabesh (1 Sam 31:11–13).
Finally, David was going to come to the throne; however, his first act would have to be to lead public mourning for over the fallen Saul (see 2 Sam 1–2).
Questions, Reflections, and Commitments
- Reflect on how Saul’s is an example of how God can permit and even facilitate our own choices if we insist on them. What does this tell us about God’s so-called “permissive will”?
- Notice how long David had to wait before he could take the throne, even though he knew God had chosen, called, and anointed him for that office. (1) What did David do during that wait, and how did it prepare him for kingship? (2) Do you see anything to learn about patience and planning there?