HH, Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
After David defeated the giant Goliath and rallied the armies of Israel to attack and defeat the Philistines, a song was popularized and sung by the women of Israel:
“Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:7)
We learn later on that this song was so popular that it even spread among the Philistines (1 Samuel 21:11), the very people who were the thousands and ten thousand being struck down in the song. Upon hearing this song, King Saul grows jealous of David’s growing popularity. “What more can he have but the kingdom?” (1 Samuel 18:8) Saul asks rhetorically. After this point, Saul attempts to pin David with a spear multiple times, and sends David out on suicide missions (all of which David returns victorious and even more popular than before), and eventually leads to multiple periods of time where Saul pursues David across Israel to kill him.
It shouldn’t have been that way, of course. As king, Saul should have been confident enough in himself to understand that any victory for Israel, even by the hands of David, was ultimately a victory for Saul as well. Saul’s son, Jonathan, tells his father as much:
“Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you. For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the LORD worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” (19:4-5)
Jonathan makes the point that David’s victory was in fact the LORD’s victory, a victory for all of Israel, and good for Saul.
But Saul could not see beyond his petty jealousy. One could argue that Saul helped put David on the throne. In the various pursuits of David by Saul, David was able to acquire men and allies. David became something of a folk hero during these years. Saul’s constant harassment could also have made David a better soldier as well. The more Saul opposed David, ironically, the more kingly he made David appear. Saul’s jealousy became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If Saul had not been jealous of David, how different could history have been?
Unfortunately for Saul, his jealousy started far before David came onto the scene. Early in his reign, Saul single-handedly led the armies of Israel to victory against the Ammonites and secured his popularity among the people (1 Samuel 11:1-11). He was a humble man back then, declaring that the victory did not belong to him but “today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel” (1 Samuel 11:13). But Saul’s humility did not last. As time goes on, Saul seems to become addicted to the adulation that victory brought him. And he trusts in himself more and more, and in God less and less. In a battle with the Philistines, Saul enforces a vow to the Israelite army that they shouldn’t eat anything until evening and “I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Samuel 14:24). Saul is more concerned with his vengeance and his reputation than the good of the army. At other times, Saul also makes sacrifices to God without waiting for Samuel as he was supposed to (1 Samuel 13:8-14) and directly disobeyed orders from God when fighting the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-35). After these incidents, Saul is told that his kingdom will be taken from him and his line will not continue on the throne.
Saul came to the throne of Israel as a nobody and even did not want the responsibility at first, hiding among the luggage when the king of Israel was being revealed by lot (1 Samuel 10:22). It was in this state of humility he was able to secure his throne while also giving all glory to God (1 Samuel 11:13). But as Saul began to rely on himself more, and on God, less, he eventually lost everything.
Jesus put it this way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
There is much to learn from the tragedy of King Saul. His story did not have to go the way it did. Instead of holding onto his faith in God, he sought to “save his life” and in doing so “lost it.” As Jesus tells us, the way to life is to paradoxically deny yourself, pick up your cross (the instrument of your death) and follow Jesus. Saul became jealous and afraid of losing his kingdom to David, and instead of denying himself and accepting the path God had for him, Saul defiantly held on until the end. Let us learn from his faults, and instead trust ourselves to Jesus.