Picture yourself out for a nice dinner, a dinner you normally wouldn’t be able to afford. Cream colored table cloths, candlelight, and hundred dollar glasses of wine—that kind of dinner. A small quartet of musicians play tastefully in the background as you are taken to your table. The menu is extravagant; the atmosphere, exquisite; the service, excellent. You look around and notice that you are dining with the upper crust of society, a social circle normally far beyond you. A white-gloved waiter brings you a meticulously and artfully plated dish. You take a bite and, ah!, it is perfect—more than perfect, even exceeding your expectations. You gently dab your mouth with your folded napkin: This is the life, you think to yourself.
But as you look at the beautiful and wealthy people around you, a strange shadow passes over you—an odd, yet perceptible sense that something isn’t right. No one else in the room seems affected; all continue smiling and eating, so you push the thought away and continue to enjoy your evening, yet that sense of uneasiness lingers in the back of your mind. You look around, what could it be? You examine your food, the waiter, the guests around you—all seems to be in order, nothing has changed. The music continues to play, the wine continues to flow, but by now your uneasiness has grown to a quiet panic. Your eyes dart back and forth looking for the danger. Suddenly, a shrill scream.
We use the idiom “a fly in the ointment” to refer to something that appears good, yet has a fatal flaw hidden just below the surface. This Twilight-Zone-esque scene I just painted for you is an imaginative picture of just that, and it is, I think, a parable of what our text today is like. In so many ways, our story today is a picture of so many good things happening to the people of Israel, yet there is a discordant note that keeps playing in the background that should leave us with a sense of uneasiness.
Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. 18 And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.” – 1 Sam 10:17-19
1 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. 2 And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. 3 Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to Saul his son, “Take one of the young men with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys.” – 1 Sam 9:1-3
Saul’s father’s donkeys have gone missing, so Saul is charged to go find them. He brings a servant along with him and they go searching. They search high and low and are just about to give up when the servant remembers that Samuel the prophet is nearby. Rumor has it that he has a direct line to God, so perhaps he can help the young men find the missing donkeys? So they head off in his direction. This simple, modest mission, however, has a conclusion that neither men could ever dream of.
15 Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed to Samuel: 16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” 17 When Samuel saw Saul, the LORD told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.” – 1 Sam 9:15-17
18 Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Tell me where is the house of the seer?” 19 Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. 20 As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house?” 21 Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” – 1 Sam 9:18-21
Saul doesn’t even get the chance to ask Samuel about his father’s lost donkeys. Samuel quickly sweeps the issue aside, inviting Saul to join him for a special feast, before subtly alluding to Saul’s selection as the king over Israel. The wording in the ESV is very clunky in verse 20, “And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house?” The CSB much more helpfully translates that as, “And who does all Israel desire but you and all your father’s family?” Saul immediately realizes that Samuel is alluding to the nations desire for a king (see 1 Sam 8) and demurs by pointing out that the tribe of Benjamin is the least of all the tribes of Israel (see Judges 19-21). Perhaps Saul is pointing out the fact that he doesn’t come from the tribe of Judah, the promised lineage that a king was to be chosen from (Gen 49:10). Nevertheless, Samuel doesn’t answer him. He simply escorts Saul and his servant into the feast hall and places them both in the highest seat of honor and gives Saul the choicest cut of meat to eat (1 Sam 9:22-24). The following day, Saul and his servant are about to leave on their way back home when Samuel pulls Saul aside to “make known…the word of God,” to Saul (1 Sam 9:27).
1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. – 1 Sam 10:1
Taking a special mixture of oil and fragrant spices (Ex 30:23-25), Samuel “anoints” Saul to be prince (king) over Israel. Anointing an individual was a common practice in the ancient near east; it was a method of selecting an individual out symbolically for a special task. There were two kinds of “anointed ones” (messiah) in Israel: kings and priests. Saul is being selected as the first king of Israel through his anointing. This brings our mind back to Hannah’s song, which foretold of an anointed king to come: “The Lord…will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed,” (1 Sam 2:10).
Samuel pours the oil over Saul’s head and then pronounces three prophetic signs with a remarkable amount of specificity and detail to confirm that Samuel has not made a mistake, but this is the work of the Lord: (1) Saul will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb who tell him the donkeys have been found (1 Sam 10:2), (2) then he will meet three men each carrying different items who will give Saul bread (1 Sam 10:3-4), and (3) Saul will come upon a group of prophets and will immediately begin prophesying with them.
9 When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. 10 When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. – 1 Sam 10:9-10
Saul’s doubt has been confronted by the confirmation of the signs, such that “God gave him another heart.” This isn’t a reference to the promise of New Covenant, but just is a reference to God helping Saul overcome some of his reservations, like “a change of mind.” Saul returns home where his uncle asks him where he has been and what was he doing with Samuel.
16 And Saul said to his uncle, “He told us plainly that the donkeys had been found.” But about the matter of the kingdom, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything. – 1 Sam 10:16
Now, the private anointing of Saul has concluded, but Saul seems still hesitant. The next two scenes I will read in length to get a picture of what the public coronation of Saul looks like:
17 Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. 18 And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.”
20 Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. 21 He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its clans, and the clan of the Matrites was taken by lot; and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. 22 So they inquired again of the LORD, “Is there a man still to come?” and the LORD said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” 23 Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
25 Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. 26 Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. 27 But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
1 Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” 2 But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” 3 The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” 4 When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.
5 Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. 6 And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. 7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. 8 When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. 9 And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. 10 Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” 11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
The Kingdom Is Renewed
12 Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.” 13 But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.” 14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly. – 1 Samuel 10:17-11:15
Sometimes, because they know how Saul’s story ends, preachers can give Saul a pretty unfair shake: Look at that false modesty he has; he doesn’t even know where the prophet is; Ah, he lost his father’s donkeys, how irresponsible! But not only does that seem a little bit of an interpretive stretch, but it also ignores much of what the Bible actually tells us about Saul. Saul is depicted in a seriously positive light at the beginning of his story. Furthermore, if we flatten Saul into a two-dimensional villain, we will lose the instructive lesson for ourselves. The character development of Saul across this book is to serve as a dire warning for us. But unless we see Saul for what he really is, we real write him off immediately and not see the full force of the warning. Saul is a cautionary tale for church goers precisely because of how good his story starts off.
So, let’s consider what Saul’s strengths are in these three chapters.
First, he has the bearing of a king. Saul’s father is a wealthy man, so he comes from a family of affluence and privilege, so Saul is familiar with power (1 Sam 9:1). Further, he has a commanding presence due to his stature (1 Sam 9:2). After he stands up from hiding in the baggage, we are told, “And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (1 Sam 10:23-24). And lest you think that the people of Israel are just shallow, remember that one of the reasons they desire a king is so that their king will go out and fight their battles for them (1 Sam 8:20), so being physically strong is a serious bonus.
Second, he is a good person. The ESV translates 1 Samuel 9:2 as, “[Saul was] a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he.” But the word for “handsome” here is just the Hebrew word tov, which is just the word for “good.” One commentator notes, “This “goodness” is not so much a description of the physical appearance as of the nature and personality of a man.” The CSB translates the word as, “impressive.” And we see that bear out over the story. Saul is modest; unlike most people who claw their way up to the top, Saul isn’t stabbing anyone in the back to become a king; in fact, he is pretty doubtful about himself. Even after being king, Saul is just back at home plowing his field. He doesn’t quit his day job and start exploiting the people under him to build a palace for him to lounge in. Further, he has the Spirit of the Lord rush upon him and empower him (1 Sam 10:9; 11:6). He is merciful and gracious after the victory of Jabesh-gilead when the people want to execute the worthless fellows who doubted Saul’s ability: “But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel,” (1 Sam 11:13). He even acknowledges that it was the Lord—not himself—who worked the salvation for Israel.
Third, he is an effective leader who saves the people. When Samuel is about to meet Saul God tells him, “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me,” (1 Sam 9:16). That last phrase (“their cry has come to me”) reminds us of the Exodus, when God raises up Moses to deliver His people (Ex 3:9-10; cf. Ex 2:25; 3:7). Which makes you compare Saul and Moses. In fact, Saul’s initial response to becoming a king similarly mirrors Moses’ reluctance: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex 3:11). And like Moses, Saul delivers Israel. The city of Jabesh-gilead is about to completely crushed and humiliated by Nahash of the Ammonites, and Saul is able to unify all of Israel together (1 Sam 11:7) and organize them strategically (1 Sam 11:11) and save the city.
And get this: the name of the king of the Ammonites, Nahash, in Hebrew means: serpent. Back in Genesis 3:15 Eve was promised that from her lineage would be born a son who would crush the head of the serpent. What does Saul do here? He crushes the serpent. Which makes you as a Bible reader at this point wonder: could Saul be the guy? Could this be the promised one who would finally set things right that wrong in the garden?
I mean, just listen to how the story ends: “Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly,” (1 Sam 11:14-15). The credits for the movie could just start rolling here. Israel has her benevolent and victorious king, her enemies are defeated, the kingdom is renewed, and God is worshipped.
The dinner is perfect, the ambiance is perfect, the wine is perfect, everything about the evening couldn’t be improved upon.
Except, something isn’t right.
The Flawed Foundation
Three discordant notes play in the background across this story that—despite it’s seeming perfection—should leave us feeling uneasy.
First, and most importantly, when it comes time to publicly install Saul as the king, here is what Samuel says: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’” (1 Sam 10:18-19). Everyone may be excited about Saul, but Samuel wants everyone to know exactly what they are doing—they are rejecting the God who has saved them. They are rebelling against God and walking in open sin. Which problematizes the happy ending at the end of chapter eleven. What are we to think of that? The path that led them to that happy ending was a path of sin.
Can you sin your way into blessing? I bet by the renewal of the kingdom at Gilgal, all the Israelites were thinking: See, Samuel—how could this be wrong? Look at what a king can do for us!
Second, Samuel is told when he sees Saul, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people,” (1 Sam 9:17). Of the 46 times the word “restrain” is used, it almost always is used negatively in the Bible; it comes from a root that means “to constrict” and can be used simply to refer to a slave (Deut 32:36). It is used to describe prisoners being restrained (Jer 33:1), a woman’s womb being closed (Gen 20:18), or a plague being restrained (Num 25:8). Samuel warned the people that if they wanted a king, the king was going to take everything from them till they became slaves (1 Sam 8:10-18). Here, Saul—the king they are so excited for—is the one who will constrict and bind the people till they are slaves.
Third, though everyone thinks that Saul’s height is something that marks him off as king, it should leave us hesitant. The word used for “height” (g’boah) in 1 Samuel 9:2 (and 10:23) is the same word for “pride.” It is used in Hannah’s song, a song all about how God is going to take those who are lifted up high, and bring them down low; and take those down low, and lift them up high. She warns, “Talk no more so very proudly,” (1 Sam 2:3)—there g’boah is doubled for emphasis, “talk no more g’boah g’boah.” Why? Because God is going to oppose the proud. What is Saul? G’boah.
But how could Saul be proud when so much of the story seems to emphasize his humility? This will become more apparent as the story of Saul develops and we see just how profoundly vain and addicted to the praise of the people Saul really is. But if someone is a terribly vain person and is just uncertain of their own ability, they will run away from opportunities for them to take responsibility—not from true humility or modesty, but really from pride and vanity. They don’t want to look like a fool, so they just let responsibility pass to someone else. And, from the outside, it looks a lot like modesty. But really, they are just as enslaved to the approval of others—they are just scared they don’t have it and can’t bear the thought of attempting to do something and then failing and earning the scorn and hatred from others. Humility and a fear of embarrassment are not the same thing.
So, while the story ends with a “happily ever after” feeling to it, we see that there is a fatal flaw in the foundation. The building may look beautiful and impressive and enduring, but that cracked foundation is going to reduce this entire edifice to rubble.
One: God can use bad things for good.
The story of the 1 Samuel 9-11 is a story of the providence of God. The remarkable and somewhat tedious details we are given about where the donkeys are and the precise details of the prophetic signs Samuel gives Saul show us that God is in control of the most minute of details of life. The seemingly random and inane event of some donkeys wandering off puts into motion matters of immense consequence. Jesus teaches us that not even a sparrow falls out of the sky, not a hair falls from our head apart from the Father’s command (Matt 10:29-31). God is in control of everything. But even more profoundly, God is providentially using the rebellion of the people of God here in requesting a king to actually posture Israel to receive the true king, David, who similarly is being used to prepare the world for the final, true, and lasting king: Jesus.
God can use wickedness and sin and rebellion and fulfill righteous, good, and holy purposes. Here, he intends to use Saul to save his people—and He does—even while telling Israel that what they are doing in requesting a king is itself wicked.
Perhaps you have listened to the wildly popular podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The podcast told the story of the Seattle mega-church, Mars Hill, and how it led thousands of people to Christ, discipled them well, taught sound theology, and trumpeted the gospel. Yet, simultaneously, inside the church there was a spirit of vanity, abuse, and rottenness that completely contradicted the gospel message that was being heralded. How could something built upon something God hates (pride), be used to do something that God loves (make disciples)? Because God is able to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. God is able to fold in rebellion and sin into His sovereign plan without endorsing or approving of that sin.
Two: Sin sometimes looks like godliness
…having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. – 2 Tim 3:5
Here, Paul is warning Timothy of what false teachers are like—those who prey on the vulnerable, indulge in sin, etc. But it may surprise us to see that these false teachers look godly. Sin doesn’t always look like its nastier expressions. Sometimes it looks respectable, gentle, kind, benevolent—sometimes it looks like Saul. Anyone who has just started dating someone knows that you should wait a few months before you start saying “I love you” or looking at wedding rings because anyone can look good for a few months. It is only over a period of time that the real person will really come to light. In just a matter of time, what Saul really loves will be exposed and the appearance of godliness he has will melt away.
Three: You cannot sin your way into blessing.
The celebratory note at the ending of chapter eleven, the seemingly positive way that Saul is described and the blessings he brings may lead people to think that you can sin your way into blessing. But you can’t.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Gal 6:7-8
Why does Paul open that verse with “do not be deceived”? Because you are in danger of being tricked—life sometimes makes it look like you can sow to the flesh, but reap from the Spirit. Why? Because just like it takes time from a seed to grow, sprout, and then harvest, so too do our actions. And sometimes the bud of the plant of sin looks at first like a good thing. It doesn’t immediately look like the rotten, stinking fruit of corruption. The affair feels exciting and invigorating—it is filling the hole that your spouse hasn’t been filling and you think, this is what I have been looking for!
But friend, God is not mocked. You cannot plant the seed of flesh and reap eternal life. You cannot sin your way into blessing. And even if you are getting away with it now, in time you will reap what you sow.
That is a sobering warning. But did you notice the encouraging blessing as well? If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life! You may be tempted to be discouraged in your spiritual life, feel like nothing is happening, and Paul anticipates that with the very next verse: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,” (Gal 6:9). Why does Paul say that? Because you are going to be tempted to give up. But take heart, God is not mocked! If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life!