David is Israel’s most famous king – remembered as Israel’s greatest king. But he wasn’t Israel’s first king. The first king was Saul.
It’s easy to focus on David. We all know he’s the main character here. The great king of Israel, whom God favors. Whose kingship is long remembered as Israel’s greatest era, which people in Jesus’ time yearn to restore. But today, as David is crowned king in our Scripture reading, I want to pause and talk about Saul.
In the eighth chapter of the first book of Samuel, the people of Israel demanded a king. The prophet Samuel warned them that having a king will cost them; but they insisted. Immediately, in chapter nine, a man named Kish sends his son Saul to go look for some lost donkeys. Having no luck, he hears that there’s a prophet in a nearby town and determines to ask him where the donkeys are. He finds Samuel – who tells him that he is the chosen king of Israel. (And also that the donkeys have been found.)
Why Saul? Well, honestly, the usual reasons, it seems. He’s tall and handsome. He’s the son of a wealthy father and belongs to the right kind of family – in this case, a Benjaminite. We still put guys like that in charge of things a lot.
The accounts of Saul’s kingship are SO SHORT. He becomes king in first Samuel chapter 10. Then he has one good chapter, where he wins a battle against his people’s enemies – kings were military leaders in this time – and everyone is excited about him. Then, almost immediately, he does something that upsets Samuel and/or God, and starts to lose favor. In chapter 14, Saul’s own son Jonathan starts to undermine his leadership by being more bold and successful in a raid on the enemy than Saul. Saul has a few more military victories – but in chapter 15, God tells Samuel that God regrets choosing Saul as king, and in chapter 16, God sends Samuel to find and anoint David as God’s choice for the next king. Chapter 17 is the David and Goliath story, where we see hints that this bold shepherd boy has more going for him than Saul, King of Israel.
At this point God has un-chosen Saul and chosen David, but there are still FOURTEEN CHAPTERS before Saul’s death. For most of that time David is living in the wilderness with a little band of 600 malcontents, running away from King Saul and his army as they try to seek them out and squash them.
We don’t know how long Saul was king. Chapter 13, verse 1, reads: “Saul was blank years old when he began to reign, and he reigned blank and two years over Israel.” The numbers that should be there were lost so long ago that nobody can even guess. We don’t know whether Saul’s kingship was really short, as it seems, or whether it was longer and the Biblical text just doesn’t really care about Saul.
What went wrong with Saul? The first incident that causes Saul to lose God’s favor happens in chapter 13 – very soon after he becomes king. The Philistine army is preparing to attack Israel. They are superior in both numbers and equipment, and Israel’s troops are terrified. The prophet Samuel promised Saul that he would come within seven days and present an offering to God that would secure God’s help during the battle ahead. So Saul waited seven days; but Samuel didn’t come. Meanwhile more and more of his fighters were slipping away, day by day, afraid of death at the hands of the Philistines. Israel’s odds, already poor, are getting worse by the hour.
So Saul makes the offering to God himself, to ask God’s favor and help. And the moment he’s finished, Samuel walks up and yells at him. “You have done foolishly! The LORD would have established your kingdom for ever; but now your kingdom will not continue.”
Here we only have God’s rejection of Saul in Samuel’s words. Maybe Samuel was just mad. A couple of chapters later, in chapter 15, Samuel is still addressing Saul as King, and sending him to destroy the people of Amalek, avenging a grievance from the time of Moses. Saul is specifically charged to kill EVERYBODY – men, women, children, and livestock. Saul and his army fight the Amalekites and win – but they spare the best of the livestock, and keep other valuables as well.
Then God speaks to Samuel: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel confronts Saul, who insists at first that the only spared the best of the livestock so that they could sacrifice them to God… but eventually confesses that did it because he listened to the voice of the people, who wanted to keep the animals instead of killing them. Saul is distraught; he seizes the hem of Samuel’s cloak and it tears. Samuel looks him in the face and says: “Just so has God torn the kingdom of Israel from you, and given it to another.”
Saul’s failures are not great. But they’re also not terrible. They’re kind of boring, honestly. Commonplace. Impatience. Anxiety. A little ordinary human weakness and greed. And listen: Saul didn’t ask to be king. It’s not like he put himself forward as the best man for the job. In fact, back in chapter 10, when Samuel first gathers the people to present and anoint Saul as their king, Saul hides.
If we take the text at its word that Saul was God’s choice: Why would God have chosen Saul? It’s an interesting question. Maybe God knew the people, who had this very fixed idea about their future king, would only accept someone who fit those ideas. (The text stresses that Saul was VERY tall.) Maybe God knew Saul wouldn’t be able to carry the burden of leadership – and felt that that would be a valuable learning experience for the people. Maybe Saul was genuinely the best candidate Israel had to offer at the time.
Or maybe God’s choosing and rejecting of Saul is simply part of how those composing this text are making sense of the messiness of this chapter of their people’s history.
Saul probably would have lived a reasonably happy life if he hadn’t become king. It’s that role and its pressures that start to break him. And he does break. David comes along and he’s younger and cuter and braver and more successful in battle and more favored by God… Saul’s own children, his son Jonathan and daughter Michal, both fall in love with David… and Saul can’t take it. He can’t say, “Hey, good for him! I’m lucky to have him around!” His jealously and insecurity spiral into hatred and paranoia. I wish I could tell you the whole story!
Saul failed as king. There’s no question about it. But he is a tragic figure, not a villain. I pity Saul.
Like every historical document, First Samuel tells its story with a particular viewpoint and agenda. And this text’s perspective is not actually that Saul was a bad king and David was a great one – but that kings in general are maybe not as great as you might think.
The Fourth of July is an interesting time to think about history. And I don’t mean just history as “things that happened in the past,” but history as a human process. History as a way of making meaning of both past and present. History as a human process often simplifies events, or tells them with a particular slant.
Lots of things that seem glorious were actually really messy. Lots of things that seem predestined, inevitable, could easily have gone otherwise. Lots of people who seem like noble heroes were actually deeply flawed… and some of the people who seem like villains – or nobodies – are really interesting, and worth our understanding and compassion.
In today’s Gospel when Jesus says that prophets aren’t honored in their hometown, he’s pointing at an aspect of this truth. When you know someone well, you know the whole picture, for better or worse. It’s harder to idealize or romanticize.
Many churches don’t mark the Fourth of July, Independence Day, our chief national holiday. I have deep respect for that choice. Better to ignore it completely than to engage it shallowly. At St. Dunstan’s we often to share a few readings from American history, as our observance of the day – as an exercise in living with the ambiguity of history.
Facing that ambiguity can be uncomfortable. We see that in the current wave of pushback over schools teaching American history with greater attention to the voices and experiences of different groups, and to our nation’s many failures to live up to our boldest ideals and aspirations. Many folks have a real visceral reaction to the idea that our national history is not as glorious and inevitable – that our great men were not perhaps as great – as we learned in elementary school in decades past.
How do we cope with that ambiguity and discomfort? Well, for me, one big answer is my faith – my identity as a Christian, which is a higher loyalty than my citizenship as an American. Using my understanding of God’s intentions for humanity – things like mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all – using that as a yardstick, I can measure the successes and failures of my city, state, and nation. I can look for the places where movement towards better is happening, or could happen – and strive to support it, with my time and voice and resources.
When we hold up the realities of our common life agains our shared values and aspirations, and find ourselves yearning and crying out for better, we join a chorus that spans nearly 250 years.
Let’s share a few such voices now, and pray that their words may inspire us to deeper commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy that are the foundation stones of this nation, and to God’s dream of mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all.