The biography of King Saul is a tragic story of a good peasant corrupted by having great power thrust upon him, against his own and the LORD's wishes.
The people of Israel had for centuries been governed and rescued from military crisis by local leaders known as “judges.” But the judge system had lost public support, and the population demanded that the last judge, the prophet Samuel, reform the political system and name a king to succeed him, in spite of the LORD's warning that this would be a disaster.
At the LORD's direction, Samuel named Saul, a young farmer, to be king. Though Saul didn't want the job and hid, he was quickly found, and a ceremony of anointing was observed. Then Saul, still avoiding the kingship, returned to his father's farm.
But a crisis arose when the Israelite city of Jabesh came under severe attack. Reasoning that national security was a king's job, Saul rose to the occasion and used an ingenious public relations campaign to assemble an army, and Jabesh was rescued. Upon this stunning performance, Saul became a national hero and took his throne.
But in spite of his heroism, Saul was unfit for leadership of God's people. Placing military strategy, pride, and greed above public service and faithfulness to the LORD, Saul ignored his kingly duties of national security, moral leadership, and obedience to the LORD, investing the latter part of his reign in a paranoid hunt for his faithful army general David, whom he wrongly considered a rival.
As a result of many acts of disobedience, the LORD removed Saul from power, and removed his heirs from the throne that should otherwise have been theirs.
Where to read Saul's story: 1 Samuel 8 - 31; 1 Chronicles 10
Today's* oldest generation can remember how the automobile changed the world, and even young adults remember how different life was before the internet. We have become accustomed to thinking of technology as a big driver of change, and for us, it is. But in Saul's day, politics was the big force driving change in the world. People-groups in Saul's part of the world were evolving from the city-state system to the nation-state system, and everyone recognized the advantages of the conversion.
Israel was under constant threat of invasion, and their enemies were becoming stronger by virtue of this political progress. In addition, Israel's political system was failing, for the godly prophet Samuel was aging, and his sons, in training to succeed him, were too corrupt to be allowed to take his place. Israel had toyed with the nation-state idea since the days of Gideon,1 and now the nation's local leaders approached Samuel and demanded that he reform the political system to a nation-state, and name a king over Israel.
The LORD's intention was to keep the political system a theocracy, at least for a time. So Samuel, speaking for the LORD, violently objected, pointing out in detail the political corruption that was certain to result from this move. But the people were not to be persuaded. So God told Samuel to meet their demands. Samuel sent the people home with the promise a king would be named.
Meanwhile, Saul was a young man working his father's farm. He was well known locally for his height, being a foot taller than the other tall men. A herd of donkeys had escaped from Saul's farm, and his father sent him to search for them. Saul packed a few days' food and left with a servant. They searched from town to town until their food supply was exhausted, but didn't find the donkeys. Finally, being in Samuel's neighborhood, they decided to visit the prophet and see if he would ask the LORD to help them find the donkeys.
When they arrived they found Samuel, having been prompted in advance by God, preparing a feast. He made Saul his guest of honor, to Saul's bafflement. Samuel told Saul the donkeys had been found. Then in a private meeting, he told him the LORD had selected him to be king of Israel.
To validate this surprising statement, Samuel offered Saul several prophecies as signs, including a prophecy that the LORD's Spirit would change Saul into a different person, and he would do things uncharacteristic of him. All those signs were fulfilled the same day, but Saul, apparently not liking the idea, kept the whole thing a secret.
Nevertheless, Samuel hosted a coronation, inviting the entire nation. As was their custom, they held a lottery to discover the LORD's choice. God arranged for Saul to win the lottery, but when the result was announced, they couldn't find him. They asked God where Saul was, and God replied that he was hiding in the supply depot. When Saul was brought to the fore, the public was impressed with his height and handsome features. They celebrated, chanting “God save the king!”
Then Samuel presented king and people with a great innovation: a written constitution. Centuries ago God had foretold exactly these events, and had supplied Moses with regulations governing the king's actions.2 Samuel explained these to the public, and the ceremony ended. Saul returned to his father's farm, and some of the people accompanied him, hoping to lend their support to the new king.
Source: 1 Samuel 8 - 10
* This was written in 2002.
1 Judges 8:22-23
2 Deuteronomy 17:14-20
The Rescue of Jabesh
One day when Saul was returning from the field with his oxen, he heard the townspeople crying aloud. He followed the noise and asked what the news was. They told him this story:
The Israelite town of Jabesh was under attack by the Ammonite king Nahash. The people of Jabesh, recognizing their defenseless situation, tendered their surrender. But cruel Nahash would accept their surrender only if every man in Jabesh allowed Nahash to gouge out his right eye. Nahash was probably leveraging his anticipated victory, reasoning that if the Jabeshites tolerated this, no other Israelite town would have the morale to resist him. The people of Jabesh requested 7 days to recruit an army, agreeing to submit to Nahash's condition if they were then still unable to fight. With the taste of future effortless conquests rich in his mouth, Nahash agreed.
Saul reacted like a true king, treating this as an emergency of the first magnitude. He immediately slaughtered the oxen he had on hand, and cut them into many pieces. He placed the pieces in the hands of his servants and supporters. He sent them to every city and town in Israel with the message, “If you don't want this to happen to your cattle, report for military duty now!” Shocked by this startling mode of communication, the men showed up, totally united in sympathy with Jabesh.
Learning of their coming rescue, the men of Jabesh were thrilled. They slyly repeated their message to Nahash, that if no rescuing army came, they would submit to his cruel demand.
King Saul divided his army into three divisions and surrounded the Ammonite army during the night. Toward morning they attacked. Apparently catching the enemy by surprise, they routed them so completely that by afternoon, what survivors were left were so scattered that no two were together. Jabesh was rescued.
Naturally, the nation was elated with this victory. They held a second coronation ceremony for Saul, at which Samuel retired from office, and Saul assumed day-to-day leadership of the nation. Samuel preached a great sermon, admonishing the people to be faithful to the LORD under their new king.
King Saul showed great magnanimity in an occurrence that day. At Saul's original coronation, certain people had opposed his appointment as king. Today, the entire nation came to be Saul's supporters, and they called for the death sentence against those who had opposed Saul earlier. But before anything could be done, Saul nullified their verdict, saying no one would be put to death during the celebration of a great victory given by the LORD.
The people of Jabesh never forgot their debt to Saul. Decades later when Saul was killed in battle and his body desecrated by the enemy, the brave men of Jabesh risked their lives to retrieve his body and give him an honorable burial.
Source: 1 Samuel 11
Saul's First Disobedience
It wasn't long, however, before King Saul abandoned his noble ideas, and from there his deterioration was continuous.
Failing to keep the momentum of this victory, Saul disbanded the army, keeping only 3,000 troops active. With a third of this tiny force, Saul's enthusiastic son Jonathan attacked Geba, a well-equipped Philistine outpost deep in Israelite territory. Realizing how the Philistines would react, Saul ordered another draft, probably hoping to amass an army as big as for the Jabesh battle, about 330,000 men.
The Philistine reaction was swift and strong. They assembled a massive army, equipped with 3,000 chariots — invincible against Israel's foot soldiers. The Israelites, lacking a metalworking industry, weren't even equipped with swords or spears. They were badly outmatched in both numbers and equipment.
The prophet Samuel had made arrangements to meet Saul at a certain time, to offer sacrifices and ask the LORD's blessing on this military venture. Many times before, God had given his people great victories, even when they were similarly outmatched.
But as the time passed Israel's soldiers, seeing the brewing crisis and the king's worried state, began to go AWOL. Saul, seeing his army evaporating before his eyes, panicked. Rather than trust the LORD for victory, he decided he needed to stop the loss of manpower. So, without waiting for Samuel to arrive, he offered the sacrifices himself — an act prohibited by the LORD's law.
Just as Saul was finishing, Samuel arrived. Saul tried to make excuses for his violation, but Samuel replied that because of Saul's disobedience, the LORD would remove him from being king, replacing him with “a man after [God's] own heart.”
Source: 1 Samuel 13
Saul's Foolish Order
So many soldiers had fled that Saul's army numbered only 600 men. His son Jonathan took one man and set out on his own, not sure on what mission they would embark. They came upon a small Philistine outpost of about 20 men, and decided to attack it, seeking the LORD's help.
The LORD did help them — an earthquake struck, throwing the Philistines into panic. The attack was successful, and Philistines at other nearby posts, fearing the earthquake and hearing the cries of Jonathan's victims, were similarly thrown into panic. Saul sprang into action.
In those days a priest, using proper ceremony, could ask God a question, and God would answer. Saul began asking his priest to consult the LORD, but the situation was urgent, and he foolishly decided he couldn't afford to take the time. Just as in the previous battle, Saul considered military considerations more important than having God's aid.
So canceling his call to the LORD, Saul sent his tiny force directly into battle, compounding his foolish decision by calling the LORD's curse on any of his men who stopped fighting to eat before sundown. As a result, his men, weak with hunger, were not fighting at their best.
However, the earthquake and Jonathan's assault had put momentum on their side. Many Israelites who had defected to the Philistines now changed sides again, and fought against the Philistines. This brought great confusion into the Philistine camps, and in many places Philistines killed each other. Ultimately, the Philistines were defeated, in spite of their vast superiority.
However, during the day Jonathan had stumbled onto a honeycomb. Being hungry, and having been absent during the announcement of his father's curse, he stopped a moment, ate some honey, was refreshed, and continued fighting.
When evening came, the soldiers paused to eat, and then Saul proposed that they resume the fight during the night, before the surviving Philistines could escape. Saul's priest Ahiah suggested they consult the LORD this time, and Saul agreed — fortunately, for God had honored Saul's curse, and as a result fighting further would have been a disaster. They called on God, but God did not answer.
Saul rightly assumed God kept silence because someone in the army had broken faith. Again following their custom, they drew lots to find out who was the violator. God arranged for Jonathan to “win” this lottery. Saul demanded that he confess his violation. By now Jonathan realized his father had called on the LORD to curse anyone who ate before sundown, and Jonathan confessed he had snacked on honey. Saul pronounced the death sentence on his son, but the soldiers violently objected, realizing that Jonathan's courageous attack had sparked the day's great victory. Jonathan was rescued.
But because of Saul's foolish management that day, the military momentum was lost. The army withdrew, and the invading Philistines were not expelled.
Source: 1 Samuel 14
Saul's Downfall Foretold
Later Saul graduated from ignoring the LORD to outright disobedience.
God sent the prophet Samuel to King Saul with a mission. We see how their relationship had deteriorated, because Samuel, introducing his message, pulled rank on the king, saying “You should listen to me, because I am the one the LORD used to anoint you king in the first place.”
The LORD's assignment to Saul was: attack the evil Amalekites; destroy them completely, taking no survivors and no plunder. This was unusual, for typically slaves and plunder were a soldier's pay.
Saul assembled his army, made special arrangements to protect nearby innocents, and laid an ambush against the Amalekites. With the LORD's help, the battle was a great success. However, Saul kept the Amalekite King Agag alive as a trophy, and his soldiers, following his example, kept much Amalekite livestock as plunder.
At this disobedience, the LORD spoke to Samuel, saying he regretted making unfaithful Saul king. Samuel lay awake all night, bitterly crying to God for the disaster that was coming on Saul.
The next day Samuel found Saul, who greeted him saying, “I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” Samuel answered, “If you obeyed the LORD, what are all these animals here for?” Saul made excuses, but Samuel was firm against all his arguments, pointing out that even if Saul sacrificed all those animals, as his excuse claimed, it wouldn't undo his act of rebellion. Obedience is precious to God.
Samuel turned to leave, realizing that there was no point in supporting Saul's regime further. But it would have been very embarrassing for Saul if Samuel didn't show his support. Saul begged Samuel to stay, and finally grabbed him by his robe, tearing it. This was a huge faux pas. Samuel replied, “The LORD has similarly torn the kingdom from you, and won't change his mind.” Still, Saul begged Samuel not to embarrass him by leaving without saying a few appropriate words.
Samuel demanded a sword, which was brought to him. His appropriate words were addressed to the Amalekite King Agag: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless” — and he killed him, as the LORD had told Saul to do.
Samuel went home, grieving deeply for a long time over the loss of Saul. They never saw each other again.1
Source: 1 Samuel 15
1 Except for one hostile meeting, 1 Samuel 19:23-24.
Saul's Jealousy of David
In a private ceremony the prophet Samuel, acting under God's direction, anointed an obscure boy named David to be the future king of Israel.
Ever since Samuel disavowed Saul, Saul had had severe bouts of depression. His staff recommended music to sooth his mood, and so David, a skilled harpist and singer, was retained as Saul's private musician. David was also a courageous young man who mixed well with Saul's military staff.
Since the LORD was no longer aiding Saul, the Philistines were now able to encroach deeply into Israelite territory, and Saul's army was unsuccessful against them. One summer as the two armies were facing each other, each waiting for the other to strike, a huge Philistine soldier named Goliath, probably over nine feet tall, stalked the valley between the two armies, shouting taunts, and challenging any Israelite to one-on-one combat. Israelite soldiers scattered at his approach.
The Israelite who should logically have answered the challenge was King Saul — but he, like everyone else, was afraid. David, probably only about 16 by now, was enraged that this evil man was allowed to insult the LORD this way, and he volunteered to fight. With no armor, and no weapon except a shepherd's sling, he killed Goliath with his first stone. He proceeded to take the giant's sword from him and cut off his head with it.
Seeing their hero felled thus, the Philistines panicked and ran. Saul's army sprang to action, chasing them and inflicting many casualties. For the rest of that summer campaign, the Israelites were successful. David himself led many successful battles.
It is a mark of David's obscurity that as he was advancing toward Goliath, Saul, who had employed David's services as a musician, said to general Abner, “Who is that kid?” and Abner replied, “I don't know.”
After this summer, though, David was obscure no more. As the armies returned home in the fall, the civilians celebrated the successful war season. The artistically inclined wrote songs, and a line from one of these songs, “Saul has slain thousands, and David tens of thousands,” brought joy to by everyone — but it galled Saul.
David's rapid rise to success, his great popularity with the public, and the (true) rumor that the LORD had named David the next king, convinced Saul that David wanted to eliminate him and seize the throne. This was far from the truth. As we shall see, David was supremely loyal to Saul. Saul, however, captured by depression and paranoia, hated David.
Saul became deeply depressed and moody, and his staff, not realizing his thoughts about David were the cause of his melancholy, called David to play the harp for him. While David played, Saul fondled his spear and nursed his anger. Suddenly, he hurled his spear at David, who fled from the room. However, loyal David remained in Saul's service in spite of this violation.
Deciding to avoid direct murder and kill David by subterfuge, Saul began sending him on very difficult military missions, with the hope that he would be killed. David foiled his plans, however, by successfully completing every mission. The public and the king's staff became more and more pleased with David, but this only made Saul hate him more.
Saul's next effort to kill David was also subversive. Saul's daughter Michal had a crush on David, and Saul offered her in marriage to David if he would kill 100 Philistines within a certain time limit, and provide evidence of the feat. Saul hoped David would be killed in the attempt. David, going beyond the call of duty, killed 200. And so this plot also failed.
Next, Saul openly ordered his staff to find David and kill him. Prince Jonathan, who had become David's best friend, first warned David to hide, and then spoke to Saul on David's behalf, reminding him of David's loyal deeds. Saul listened to reason, rescinded the order, and was reunited with David.
Then one day, while Saul was depressed and David was playing the harp for him, Saul again fell into a rage and threw his spear at David. David fled to Samuel's home where, in spite of the discouraging circumstances, the two of them along with some others worshipped and praised God. Saul sent men to arrest David, but when they arrived, the Spirit of the LORD seized them, and they began praising God with David and Samuel. Saul sent a second and a third group, with the same result. Finally, Saul himself went to capture David. Arriving at their praise meeting, Saul was overcome and began praising God too, abandoning his original intentions.
David next secured Jonathan's aid in appealing to the king. But as Jonathan pled David's case, Saul became enraged and threw his spear at Jonathan. Jonathan had previously defended his father's motives, but this convinced him of Saul's evil intentions toward David. In fury, Jonathan stormed away. He told David the whole story. The two swore an oath to be lifelong friends, and then David went into hiding.
Source: 1 Samuel 16 - 20
Saul Murders the High Priest
At this point King Saul graduated from merely disobeying the LORD to full-fledged hostility against him. If God favored David, Saul reasoned, then God was a traitor to be punished.
When David fled from Saul, he rushed away with no supplies. Lacking weapons and food, but not wanting to implicate anyone as an accomplice to an accused traitor, David went immediately to the high priest, who knew nothing of David's situation and would be above suspicion. David invented a story, telling the priest nothing that might compromise him, and asking for food and Goliath's sword, which was in storage there. These the priest supplied.
Saul had immediately formed a posse and began hunting for David. He raged irrationally at his staff, accusing them of aiding the “traitor,” and bemoaning their lack of loyalty. One of them, Doeg, had been with the high priest during David's visit, and accused the priest of complicity.
Saul summoned the high priest and his extended family, 85 priests in all, for questioning. It was clearly impossible for them to have received advance word about David's supposed disloyalty — David had fled immediately, arriving before any messenger could have — and David's superb record of success and loyalty was known to all. But irrational Saul accused them and sentenced them all to death. No one on Saul's staff was willing to carry out the sentence, fearing the LORD's judgment. But Saul told Doeg to kill them, and he did. Then he went to their town, Nob, and killed the entire population as accomplices.
Only one man is known to have escaped the slaughter — Abiathar the son of the recently murdered high priest, and therefore the new high priest. Abiathar fled to join David, and the two refugees remained together.
This incident figured prominently into Saul's downfall. In those days a priest could ask God a question, and God would answer. From this time on, Saul could no longer inquire of the LORD, since he had no priest, having murdered them all. Later on, Saul tried to communicate with God, but couldn't. But David could inquire of the LORD — he now had the high priest in his exiled community, and he made good use of this important resource.
Source: 1 Samuel 21 - 22
David Spares Saul's Life
By this time, King Saul had lost all traces of rational leadership. Abandoning his national security duties, he committed himself full time to a manhunt for exiled David.
Exiles and unwelcome people of all sorts flocked to the resourceful and charismatic David, and he had in his care a community of 600 families. When the Philistines attacked the Israelite town of Keilah, Saul should have defended his borders, but he was too busy hunting for David. So David, after inquiring of the LORD, took his men, defeated the Philistines, and rescued Keilah. However, the LORD warned David that Saul was coming to Keilah to kill him, so David fled to the wilderness, hiding wherever he could in the desert and the hills. Saul hunted daily, but David eluded him, with help from God.
One day David and his men were hiding in a cave, while Saul and his elite troops marched by, searching for them. As it happened, the army stopped to rest right outside David's cave, and Saul entered the cave to relieve himself in privacy.
Having just come in from the bright desert sun, Saul was virtually blind, but the eyes of David and his men were adapted to the dark, from hours in the cave. Saul removed his clothing and weapons, then walked deeper into the cave, but David's men were fully armed. Saul was alone, but David had a small army with him.
David's men urged him to take advantage of this God-given opportunity to end the entire problem by killing Saul, who was, after all, trying to kill David. David, however, remembered that it was the LORD who had made Saul king, and reasoned that attacking Saul was therefore equal to attacking the LORD. Instead, he snuck to where Saul had left his clothes, and cut off a section of the hem of his robe. Later, he was conscience-stricken even for this, having caused Saul embarrassment when he faced his men exposed by damaged clothing.
Saul departed the cave, totally unaware of his escape from certain death. As Saul rejoined his men, David, showing extreme courage, persuasiveness, and trust in God, emerged from the cave alone and called out to Saul. Displaying the hem of Saul's robe, he preached a sermonette about his loyalty to Saul, even giving Saul face-saving opportunities to pass the blame for his wrong behavior.
Even the nearly-insane Saul was struck by David's words and his mercy. He called off the chase and went home.
But David knew too well that Saul's repentance could not be trusted. He remained in exile.
Source: 1 Samuel 23 - 24
David Again Spares Saul's Life
David was right. King Saul again took up the chase, taking his elite troops into the field to hunt for David. Feeling the need for some military intelligence to aid in planning his defense, David took his nephew Abishai and went on a nighttime patrol.
They trekked across the desert and found Saul's camp. To their complete surprise, every night watchman was sound asleep. Intrepidly, David and Abishai walked right to the middle of the encampment, where they found Saul, sound asleep, his spear standing by his cot.
Abishai whispered to David, “Gimme one shot — just one!” David said no — the LORD had made Saul king, and anyone who opposed him opposed the LORD. They retrieved Saul's spear and canteen, and then walked to a nearby hill to await daybreak.
As the sun rose over Saul's troops, David began calling taunts to Saul's sleepy general Abner. “Wake up, Abner, wake up! I have a message for you!” When Abner finally replied, David gave his message: “For falling asleep on guard duty, you deserve to die!” As they bantered back and forth, Saul realized it was David. He told Saul his story, displaying the spear and canteen as evidence of his good intentions. Momentarily coming to his senses, Saul again called off the chase.
But again, David realized this was only a temporary reprieve — he would never be safe while Saul lived.
Source: 1 Samuel 26
The Witch of Endor
Things had gone badly for King Saul and Israel ever since Saul had rejected the LORD. Enemies, especially the Philistines, pressed hard. On this occasion, the Philistines planned a major invasion of Israel. Saul was beside himself with worry.
Saul wanted advice and help from the LORD. He tried to inquire of the LORD, but he had cut the authorized line of communication back when he executed the LORD's priests. Committed to evil, he had done nothing to repair the breach between him and God. So now, when he asked for God's advice, God was silent.
Deeply distressed, Saul apparently decided that if the LORD wouldn't talk to him, maybe Satan would. He asked his staff to find him a spirit medium — absolutely against the LORD's law.
Saul disguised himself — one wonders how, since he was a foot taller than the other tall men — and set out for the town of Endor, where the medium lived. He told the medium to raise the prophet Samuel, long dead now.
When Samuel appeared, the medium screamed in terror — suggesting she wasn't accustomed to actually talking to the dead, but perhaps only pretending to.
Samuel told Saul that the LORD refused to help him, and he wouldn't help him either. Saul had rejected the LORD's leadership, and the LORD had rejected Saul as king. Saul would die in the coming battle, and David would become king.
Saul returned, deeply depressed.
Source: 1 Samuel 28
The major invasion launched by the Philistines against Israel was a huge success. King Saul and his army were badly defeated. Saul's heir and David's best friend, Prince Jonathan, was killed, as were two other sons of Saul.
Hard pressed by Philistine soldiers, Saul was wounded. Unable to escape, and afraid of being captured and tortured by the enemy, Saul urged his armor-bearer to kill him. Afraid, he refused. So Saul fell on his own sword and died. Seeing this, his armor-bearer did the same. This double suicide was one of only five suicide events recorded in the Bible.
Seeing the battle lost and their king dead, the Israelites in the region abandoned their homes, which the Philistines then occupied.
The Philistine soldiers found Saul's body. In spite of Saul's failures and sins, he had done much to protect Israel, and his body was a great trophy to his enemies. They cut off his head and strung his body outside the city wall for all to see.
This was too much for the men of Jabesh, whom Saul had rescued many years ago from a horrible fate. They journeyed through the night and removed the headless bodies of Saul and his sons from the city wall. If they had been caught, they would certainly have been killed. They escaped to Jabesh, however, cremated and buried them, and hosted a proper funeral.
Source: 1 Samuel 31; 1 Chronicles 10