In chapter 8 of 1 Samuel — which we studied together three weeks ago — the elders of Israel came to Samuel and asked him to appoint a king to lead them ‘such as all the other nations have’. Though the Lord was their king, and though the Lord had been a good king — who had rescued them from their enemies; and who had given them peace and rest in the Promised Land — they now wanted a human king to rule over them; and they wanted a king like all the other nations had. In other words, they were rejecting the Lord as their king, and they wanted another king to lead them and to go out before them and to fight their battles. Instead of trusting in the Lord to lead them and to go out before them and to fight their battles, they wanted a new kind of king. And the Lord agreed to their request. He told Samuel to obey their voice and to give them what they wanted.
However, you might remember that I said the Lord was going to use their new king to discipline his people for their unbelief and rebellion. The Lord was going to use their new king as a rod to chastise them, because their new king would only take and take and take from them. He will take their sons and daughters to be his servants; and he’ll take their land to give to his attendants; and he’ll take their produce and give it away too; and he’ll take their servants and the best of their animals for his own use. And in the end, they themselves will become his slaves. They think life will be great once they have a king of their own, like the nations have, but the Lord made clear that the new king will only take from them and will make them miserable. The Lord was going to give them what they asked for, but he was going to use what they asked for to discipline them.
And so, we come to chapters 9 and 10 and to this story about the anointing of Saul to be king over God’s people. Now, I’ve read a number of commentaries on this passage and I’ve listened to a few sermons on it; and many of the commentators and preachers aren’t too sure what to make of this passage. Chapter 8 makes clear that the new king will not be a blessing, but will be a curse. However, Saul seems okay. He certainly looks the part; and there doesn’t appear to be much wrong with him. So, how do we reconcile these chapters? Chapter 8 says the new king will only bring trouble; but chapters 9 and 10 seem to be saying that Saul was okay.
Well, as we’ll see in a few minutes, there are indications in the text that there are problems with Saul and he’s not at all the right person to be king over God’s people. And so, we’ll come to that.
But before we do, let’s think about something else. When reading a biblical story like this one — or when reading any kind of story, whether it’s a true story like this one or whether it’s a made up story in a novel — it’s important to identify who the hero of the story is. Who’s the main character? Who is the main actor in this narrative, the person who drives the plot along and who makes things happen?
So, who is the hero in this story? Well, let’s lay out the options. Chapter 9 begins by telling us about this man named Kish who was from the tribe of Benjamin and who was a man of standing. That is, he was a wealthy man. However, he’s not the main character in this story, because he’s only mentioned in verse 1 and he’s only mentioned because of his son, who is introduced to us in verse 2. Kish’s son is Saul. Is Saul the main character in this story? Is he the hero of the story?
Well, we’re told he was an impressive young man who was without equal among the Israelites. The word translated ‘impressive’ by the NIV can be translated ‘handsome’. The Hebrew word means ‘good’, but it means he looked good. And we’re also told that he was taller than any of the others. So, he was tall and handsome and he therefore stood out among his fellow Israelites.
So, is this man the hero of the story? Well, he certainly has the looks for it: he’s movie-star material. And a lot of the action which follows involves him. So, his father’s donkeys have got lost; and his father sends Saul to find them. Saul heads off with one of the servants to find the lost donkeys. And you can see from verse 4 that they made a thorough search for the donkeys. But then, in verse 5, we read that when they reached the district of Zuph, Saul was ready to give up the search and go home. They haven’t found the donkeys, and Saul says that his father will become more worried about them than about the donkeys. So, let’s go home. However, the servant knows that in a nearby town there’s a man of God, a seer, a prophet.
‘Let’s go to see him, because he might be able to tell us what way to take. He might be able to reveal the whereabouts of the donkeys.’
‘But what can we bring the man?’ Saul asks. We can’t go empty-handed. We have to bring a gift; and all our supplies have been used up. However, it turns out that the servant has some money in his pocket and he’s willing to give it to the prophet in order to find out about the donkeys. And so, they decide to go to see this man of God, this prophet.
And in the verses which follow, we read how they came to the town where the prophet lived; and some girls told them where to find the prophet; and it turns out that the man of God, the seer, the prophet, is none other than Samuel.
And according to verse 15, Samuel was expecting Saul. He was expecting Saul because the day before the Lord revealed to Samuel that he — the Lord — was sending Saul to Samuel so that Samuel could anoint him as leader — or as king — over God’s people. And the Lord goes on to explain that Saul will deliver the Lord’s people from the hand of the Philistines, their enemies.
And so, it certainly seems that Saul is the hero of this story, doesn’t it? He’s the one who will become the king of God’s people. He must be the hero of this story, mustn’t he?
And in the rest of the chapter we read about the preparations Samuel had made for Saul’s arrival; and how Saul was brought into the hall, where guests had been invited for a meal; and Saul was placed at the head of the table, in the place of honour; and there was a piece of meat which had been set aside for him which he has given to eat. And then, in chapter 10, Samual anointed Saul as leader or king over God’s people. And in case Saul had his doubts, and thought that Samuel was making all of this up, Samuel told him to expect three signs to confirm that everything Samuel had said to him about being king was true. And sure enough, the three signs all happened just as Samuel said they would.
I should perhaps explain that when it says in verse 6 that the Spirit of God will come upon him in power and he will be changed into a new man, and when it says in verse 9 that God gave him a new heart, we shouldn’t think these are references to regeneration or to being born again of the Spirit of God, which we read about in John 3. When someone is born again of the Spirit of God, that person is enabled by God’s Spirit to turn from his sins and to trust in Christ for salvation and to live a new kind of life, one of faith and obedience. But that’s not what is happening here. Back in Judges 14 and 15, we’re told that the Spirit of God came on Samson in order to strengthen him to fight against the Philistines. And so, when we read in 1 Samuel that the Spirit of God came on Saul, it means that God was going to help Saul to fulfil his calling to deliver God’s people from their enemies. And he would become a new man with a new heart in the sense that up to now he was a farmer, but from that time on he would be king.
So, is Saul the hero of this story? Is he the main character in this story, the one who drives the plot forward? Well no, he’s isn’t. Saul is really very passive in this story. He doesn’t do very much in this story; instead things are done to him. His father was the one who sent him to find the lost donkeys. And when Saul was ready to give up and go home, it was his servant who suggested they go to the prophet. When Saul said they had nothing to give the prophet, it was his servant who had money to use as a gift. And when they find Samuel, Samuel is the one who does all the talking and Saul is only listening to him.
So, although a lot of the story is about Saul, he’s not really the hero of the story, the one who drives the plot along. So, who is the hero? Is it the servant? Well no, he only appears in a few verses. Then is is Samuel? Well, Samuel appears in the story a lot of the time and he does a lot and he says a lot. However, Samuel is really only doing what he’s been told to do by the Lord. So, Samuel was only doing what he was told.
So, who is the hero in the story? Well, it’s the Lord, isn’t it? He’s the main actor in the story and the one who drives the plot forward and who makes things happen. He was the one who arranged for the donkeys to go missing; and he used those lost donkeys to lead Saul to Samuel. And he told Samuel to get ready for Saul’s arrival and to anoint him. And no doubt he was the one who told Samuel about the three signs. The Lord is the hero of this story, the one who drove the plot along. Everything that happens in this story happens because of him; and he’s the one who was working out his plan for Samuel and for Saul and for Israel.
In our church’s Shorter Catechism, it refers to God’s works of providence. What are God’s works of providence? God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preservation and control of all his creatures and all their actions. The Lord preserves or sustains all things and he controls all things. He governs and directs all things. So, he controlled the donkeys and made sure they were lost and wouldn’t be found until afterwards. He controlled the steps of Saul and his servant and he led them to the right place at the right time to meet Samuel. He controlled Samuel and made sure he was ready to anoint Saul. He controlled how the three signs would be worked out.
Back in chapter 8, the people rejected the Lord as their king and asked for a new kind of king. But though they had rejected him, the Lord was still very much the king, who rules over everything from his throne in heaven above. And the Lord is still the king who rules over everything. All the circumstances of your life — which an unbelieving world thinks happen by accident or by chance — happen because of him. Unbelievers look out at the world and all the things that happen in the world and in their own lives and they have no explanation for them. They can’t explain why anything happens the way it does and it seems to them that things just happen: they happen by chance and there’s no reason for it. There’s no purpose to it.
But we believe that whatever happens does not happen by accident or by chance. It happens because of the Lord who is working out his plans and purposes for the world. And though we may not understand what his plans and purposes are — and why he has sent an illness into this person’s life; and a bereavement into that person’s life; and why he has sent a coronavirus crisis on the whole world — nevertheless we believe that all of these things are under the control of our Heavenly Father, whose plans and purposes are always right; and whose love for his people is from everlasting to everlasting and can never be interrupted even for a moment. And if we ever doubt God’s providential control of all things, then all we have to do is remind ourselves of stories such as this one from 1 Samuel, where it is clear that the Lord controlled everything that happened and he was able to enlist the help of donkeys to fulfil his plans for his people.
A good king?
But let’s go back now to what I said at the beginning. How do we reconcile these chapters? According to chapter 8, their new king would not be a blessing, but a curse. He would only bring trouble on Israel. And yet Saul seems okay, doesn’t he?
Well, there are at least two indications in the text that he was not okay and he wasn’t the right man to lead God’s people. First of all, there’s what we read about Saul in verse 2 of chapter 9. We’re told he was an impressive young man. That is, he was handsome and he was tall. He stood out from the crowd. What’s wrong with that? Well, the Bible usually doesn’t refer to a person’s appearance. Usually, it tells us about their godly character or it says the Lord was with them. But the text doesn’t say anything about Saul’s character, which is significant. In fact, the commentators point out that the way Saul is introduced is similar to the way Absalom is introduced in 2 Samuel 14. Absalom was David’s son. And he too was a good-looking man. But he was also treacherous and he rebelled against his father. So, the way Saul is introduced is significant and it’s gives us a reason to wonder about his suitability.
And then secondly — and this is very significant — according to Samuel in verse 5 of chapter 10, after the second sign has happened, Saul should go to Gibeah of God where the third sign will take place. And what’s in Gibeah of God? There’s a Philistine outpost. That tells us that the Philistines have invaded the land of Israel; and they’ve set up an outpost in one of the towns of Israel. And Samuel explains how Saul will meet these prophets and the Spirit of the Lord will come on Saul in power and he too will prophesy. That’s the third sign. And then, according to verse 7, once these signs are fulfilled, ‘do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.’
Well, what does Samuel have in mind when he told Saul to do whatever your hand finds to do? What does he expect Saul to do? Well, think about it. He’s expecting Saul — this new king who has been anointed by God to deliver his people from the Philistines — he’s expecting Saul to go to Gibeah of God where there’s a Philistine outpost. And Samuel is expecting the Spirit of the Lord to come upon Saul in power, the way the Spirit of the Lord came on Samson in power. And when the Spirit of the Lord came on Samson in power, Samson went out and killed the Philistines. So, it seems likely that Samuel expects Saul to do the same. So: when you go to Gibeah of God, where there’s a Philistines outpost, and the Spirit of the Lord comes on you in power, do what your hand finds to do. In other words, do what you’re supposed to do. Attack the Philistines, because that is what God has anointed you to do and that’s why he’s going to send his Spirit on you. Attack the Philistines, for God is with you.
But what happens? We’re told in verse 9 that all three signs were fulfilled. But then, according to verse 13, after Saul finished prophesying, he went to the high place where he met his uncle who asked him where he had been. In other words, he didn’t do what Samuel was expecting him to do or what the Lord had anointed him to do. Instead of attacking the Philistines, he did nothing. And when he had the opportunity to tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship, he said nothing.
And so, it becomes clear that Saul is not the right man to be king over God’s people. Though he was anointed as king, and though the three signs were all fulfilled, and though the Spirit of the Lord came on him in power, and though Samuel commanded him to do what he was supposed to do, and though Samuel reassured him that God was with him, he did nothing.
But the good news is that the Lord had someone else in mind to rule over his people, because the Lord was going to take the kingdom from Saul and give it to David. Saul may have looked like a king, because he was tall and handsome and impressive to look at, whereas no one was impressed by David’s appearance. Do you remember? David’s father almost overlooked him. His brothers were scornful towards him. Saul regarded him as being only a boy. And Goliath despised him. Nevertheless, David was God’s choice for Israel and when the time came to attack the Philistines and to deliver God’s people from their enemies, David was not afraid to stand before Goliath, because he trusted in the Lord to help him.
Saul was not the right person to be king; David was. But David himself was only a stand-in. He and all the other kings of Israel were to make do until the coming of the true king, who is Jesus Christ the Lord. And there was nothing in Christ’s appearance that we should be attracted to him. He had no beauty or majesty that we should desire him. He was not tall and handsome like Saul. But, unlike Saul, he was willing to do everything he was supposed to do as God’s Anointed King in order to rescue his people from the dominion of the Devil and from the fear of death and to give his people the hope of eternal peace and rest in his everlasting kingdom in the new heavens and earth. He was willing to do everything he was supposed to do as God’s Anointed King in order to rescue his people. And so, he laid down his life on the cross to pay for our sins and to make peace for us with God. And afterwards, he was raised from the dead to give you life. And from his throne in heaven, he calls men and women and boys and girls all over the world through the preaching of the gospel to come into his kingdom. And whoever responds to the call and believes in him is set free from Satan’s tyranny and is brought into his kingdom, which is an everlasting kingdom which will never end. And if you believe in him, then he will uphold you and he will help you through every trial and trouble in this life; and he will bring you at last into the glory to come. All who refuse to believe in him, and who therefore belong to Satan, will one day by sent away to be punished forever for their sins. But whoever believes in Christ the king, and who therefore belong in his kingdom, will be brought into his presence to live with him forever in glory, where they will reign with him forever and forever.