Saul was anointed King of Israel at a difficult time in the nation’s history. Borders were volatile, idolatry rampant, and the Philistines a constant threat of destruction. In many ways, Saul was a good king who did much for his people. He failed, however, to be more than a human king. God would seek instead for his people “a man after his own heart,” one who could point to something more than human.
Saul’s downfall began when he found himself faced with a menacing Philistine army and deserted by great numbers of his men. The prophet Samuel was to come and offer sacrifice, which would no doubt settle the volatile spirits of the troops. Samuel, however, was delayed. So Saul did what any other king might, and offered the sacrifice himself. As soon as Saul finished, Samuel arrived and questioned him. To Saul’s plea that he “forced” himself against his natural inclinations for the good of his men, Samuel answered, “Now your kingdom shall not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (1 Sam. 13:14). God’s plan for his people was for something greater than mere political dominance, which required a king who could be something greater than a politician. Saul eventually won that battle against the Philistines, but his downfall had begun.
Saul’s character never improved. He later received through the mouth of Samuel a command to destroy the Amalekites, including even the spoils. Saul successfully defeated his foes, but took the livestock (1 Sam. 15:1-9). From a worldly point of view, this makes perfect sense. Any king at that time would be expected to destroy a foreign nation to secure borders, and to pay for the operation by taking the spoils. But this was not the divine command. The divine plan exists on a higher plane than war and spoils.
When reproached by Samuel, Saul had the effrontery to defend himself. He argued that he only took the livestock in order to offer sacrifice to the Lord. But this livestock was the fruit of his disobedience. Saul only offered his rebellion to God. He intended to use sacrifice, that primal act of piety by which man recognizes his smallness before the Creator, instead to show off the victories of an earthly king. Rather than asking forgiveness, Saul only asks that Samuel remain to sacrifice with him to avoid embarrassment for the king (1 Sam. 15:20-31).
So God sought a man after his own heart to be king of Israel. In the face of this knowledge, Saul, blinded by his own ambition and impelled by his paranoia, sought the life of his loyal servant David. The king relentlessly pursued his servant, killing those who stood in the way. In a strange twist, David, hidden in a cave, found his pursuer alone during the night. He could easily have killed his king, but instead he did something completely irrational. David cut off part of Saul’s cloak, as proof that he had spared his sovereign’s life. From a human point of view, this makes no sense. Any observer at the time would expect David to defend himself and his men by killing a king who had become a vengeful and delusional despot. He had already been anointed the future king, anyway. But he refused. David was the man whose actions referred to something more than war and spoils and power.
David was not sinless. Far from it. He committed despicable sins, sleeping with a faithful follower’s wife and killing that man in order to cover up the affair. But, unlike Saul who attempted to save face after his disobedience, David asked for forgiveness and accepted punishment. Saul acted in a worldly way, while David devoted himself to a transcendent God. Saul fought to secure his borders and his power, all the while sacrificing to God and building up his nation on his own terms. But he disobeyed the divine commands that did not make sense in the narrow economy with which he was familiar. On the other hand, David’s sparing of Saul’s life was intelligible only with reference to the divine promise. By their sins, both kings showed themselves to be men. But David, by his obedience and humility, pointed to something greater than earthly kingship. Because of this, David was the more fitting type of the Messiah, and the better disposed recipient for the promise of an eternal dynasty.
Image: Guercino, Saul Attacking David