The word ‘decline’ has a different value based on different situations. Seeing a decline in unemployment rates is good, but seeing a decline in gross domestic product is bad. Watching dirty bath water go down the drain is good, but watching your marriage go down the drain is bad.
One of the most gripping stories of decline in the Bible is that of Saul the Benjamite, the first king of Israel. As I recently read through Saul’s story again, I was struck by the pattern of Saul’s slow decline. Here are a few reflections on that for us today.
Saul is Selected
When Israel decides to have a king like the other nations around them (1 Samuel 8), Samuel the prophet is disappointed. He sees, and God affirms, that this reflects a deeper turn of the Israelites’ hearts from God toward human beings. Eventually, God leads a strong, young man named Saul on a wild donkey chase through the hill country of Ephraim to the door of Samuel. At this meeting, God tells Samuel, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people” (9:17). God sets Saul apart as the first king. What could be better than to be selected by God for a task?
Although Saul was divinely selected, he is tentative about this development. He doesn’t tell anyone about it, including his family (10:15-16). When Samuel calls the people together to announce the new king, the people cast lots to determine God’s selection. When Saul’s name is drawn, he is nowhere to be found. The reason he cannot be found is that he doesn’t want to be found; he has hidden away with the baggage. There are many viable reasons why Saul could have been tentative about his role, but we still may wonder why this young man was hiding away, not even present for the grand announcement. It is an inauspicious beginning to his rule.
Immediately thereafter, Saul wins a notable battle, rescuing the city of Jabesh Gilead from an Ammonite attack (11:1-11). Saul consolidates his kingship and then is officially confirmed by the people as king. Although some had opposed him, Saul does not lash out in anger against them but moves forward positively as Samuel leads a celebration of his kingship (11:12-15).
Slightly Disobedient Saul, part 1
Samuel steps out of the limelight, handing off his leadership to Saul, though still maintaining some of the priestly or spiritual leadership duties for the people. Saul faces a swift challenge from the people around Israel, as the Philistines wage war against the Israelites. In the midst of the overwhelming opposition of the Philistines, Saul and his men gather together. They are outnumbered and know they need the blessing of God. Samuel has promised to meet them to seek God’s guidance and blessing for the pending battle, but Samuel does not arrive at the agreed upon time.
Saul, in his fear and impatience, steps into the priestly role and offers sacrifices for the battle. In a sense, Saul appears to be doing the right thing: seeking God before entering into battle. Yet, as we probe into this situation, Saul is actually trying to control the situation, particularly the desertion of his troops. Saul appears to have little control over his troops and, in an attempt to secure authority, grasps ahold of a task that is not his to wield.
Samuel arrives shortly thereafter. He rebukes Saul for not completely obeying God, telling him that God will actually take the kingdom away from Saul (13:13-15). Samuel’s words are strong and powerful:
Now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after His own heart and appointed him ruler of His people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command. (13:14)
Slightly Disobedient Saul, part 2
Not too long after this, Saul again disobeys the Lord by not completely fulfilling Samuel’s guidance for fighting against the Amalekites. While God had asked for the total destruction of the all that belongs to the Amalekites, Saul holds back, keeping the “best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good” (15:9). Miles away, Samuel hears a word from the Lord that Saul has turned away from obeying God completely. The message comes with gut-wrenching syntax:
I regret that I have made Saul king. (15:11).
Samuel travels to find Saul, rebuking him again for his lack of total obedience to God. When Saul disingenuously says that he saved the animals in order to offer them as sacrifices to God, Samuel pointedly responds:
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice. (15:22)
Samuel leaves Saul, but it is clear that nothing will be the same. Saul’s steady decline in obedience is leading to the decline of his kingship.
[The second half of this entry will post tomorrow.]