But on the negative side there are many reasons for concern in Saul’s reign.
First, when he sees that the people are deserting him in Gilgal in 1 Samuel 13, he hurries and offers the burnt offering before Samuel’s arrival (1 Samuel 13:8-10). Samuel tells him, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:13). When Saul felt the danger of the situation, what should he have done?
We can find many examples from Moses and Joshua, but we’ll content ourselves with a more recent example, with Samuel’s guidance of Israel in 1 Samuel 7: “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you” (1 Samuel 7:5). On that occasion they feared just as Saul will in 1 Samuel 13, but
everyone’s reaction was different: “The lords of the Philistines went up against
Israel. And when the people of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines.
And the people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines’… And Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him… The LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were routed before Israel” (1 Samuel 7:7-9, 10).
Instead of conforming to this pattern and depending on Yahweh and Samuel, Saul places himself in the middle, as if everything depended on him. Pay close attention to his justification of his actions: “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines has mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:11-12). According to his answer, all movement depends on Saul. The others didn’t fulfill their responsibilities… Yahweh will not move until somebody petitions Him… therefore Israel’s salvation from Philistine hands depends on someone who sees the situation more clearly than everyone else, someone who can take charge in the midst of everyone else’s inactivity. Salvation depends on Saul. And with that pride and self-centeredness, Saul justifies his disobedience.
The consequences of his rebellion are heavy: “You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people” (1 Samuel 13:13-14). Moses lost the privilege of entering the Promised Land for not sanctifying Yahweh in Numbers 20, but his descendants could enter. Saul has lost much more! All of his descendants will suffer for his rebellion.
And for now, his consequences put Israel under enormous pressure. Instead
of a decisive victory against the Philistines like in 1 Samuel 7, the one that led Samuel to set up the memorial stone Ebenezer, this time the prophet goes up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin without praying (1 Samuel 13:15). There is no Ebenezer raised along the way. The Philistines send out three raiding parties to devastate Israel, and there is no way to stop them.
When Yahweh gives them victory in 1 Samuel 14, it is striking to see how Saul remains separate from Yahweh’s saving work. He is sitting under a
pomegranate tree, not with Samuel but with a descendant of the cursed priestly
house of Eli (1 Samuel 17:2-3). (What a sad gathering of Israel’s leadership!) He doesn’t know that Jonathan and his servant have left (1 Samuel 14:3, 17). When the panic starts that will end in Israel’s victory, he doesn’t know what’s happening.
He asks for the ark of God; then he decides there is no time for that (1 Samuel 14:18-19). He declares an oath that hinders the victory and motivates the soldiers to sin (1 Samuel 14:24, 29-32). He is ready to kill his own son, the young man through whom Yahweh won a great victory that day (1 Samuel 14:44-45). When the Bible says, “So the LORD saved Israel that day” (1 Samuel 14:23), we realize that He did it despite the king, not through him.
But instead of recognizing his distance from Yahweh’s work in order to repent and seek him again, Saul sinks further into pride. He disobeys Yahweh’s word
again in 1 Samuel 15 and elaborates an even bolder justification to cover it. When Samuel denounces his disobedience, Saul reveals what truly motivates him. He fears the people more than he fears Yahweh (1 Samuel 15:24). But instead of repenting of his sin, he’d rather preserve it! “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may worship the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:24-25). His concern is that he wants to be appear before the people with Samuel and Yahweh’s approval: “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God” (1 Samuel 15:30). He’s willing to
admit his sin in private, as long as he can remain everybody’s center of attention.
Samuel tolerates the king’s pride with amazing compassion: “So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:31). But we recognize that this supposed approval covers a grave spiritual reality: “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel
15:35). How long will Yahweh tolerate this pride?