Exemplary Cowardice: King Saul

The book of Samuel is a real treasure to the church. There is something marvelous about the intentionality behind the storytelling in this book. But even more than the literary value of 1-2 Samuel, we find as well, the history of God’s people, and their wicked desire for a king.

On paper, Saul was the model king. The book of Samuel tells us that Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin and came from a wealthy family. Scripture helps us to visualize the soon-to-be king in this way, “[Saul was] a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulder upward he was taller than any of the people.” (1 Samuel 9:2 ESV) His visible presence was undeniable. If you were to write a story with a classic hero, he would look just like Saul.

But in spite of all these outward markers of success, there was still one major flaw; Saul was at his core a people pleaser. That term may be thrown around too easily, but at its root it poisons hearts, kills any chance towards meaningful relationships, and leads to the self-destruction of the soul enslaved to acceptance.

There are few moments in our lives that are momentous. These sorts of events are character-forming and life-altering. Saul’s great tragedy occurs when he fails to honor his place as a king, and presumes to take upon himself the mantle of a priest. In this story we observe what happens when men presume that God is more interested in the appearance of religion rather than the heart behind it. Churches and Christians be warned: God is not fooled by empty acts of religion.

There are many places where Saul’s life demonstrates that his commitment to God was merely superficial. God had warned Saul through the prophet Samuel in other moments. We can find Samuel’s broad warning against faithlessness in 1 Samuel 12:20-25 and again with Saul’s wicked act of offering an unlawful sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13:9 alongside his cheap excuse where he tries to make himself look better than he was in 1 Samuel 13:12. Samuel made it clear that God was going to end Saul’s dynasty because of his sin and that he would be replaced by “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). All these would suffice to prove our point, but our chief example comes from 1 Samuel 15 in a battle scene gone wrong.

God commanded Saul to destroy everyone and everything amongst the Amalekites. Saul however chose to modify God’s command and, instead of devoting everything to destruction, as God commanded him, Saul chose to keep what he liked. The text says, “Saul and the people spared Agag [the king] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.” (1 Samuel 15:9 ESV)

What was God’s response to that? Regret. For Saul was not a faithful king. He did not follow the commandments of God. The LORD said, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” (1 Samuel 15:11 ESV) God’s heart was grieved by Saul because he feared men more than God. He lied to Samuel, claiming he kept the command. He blamed the people around him. He tried to cover his failures with religious language claiming he spared the animals that they might be sacrificed. But the prophet Samuel saw through it all.

Samuel confronted the wicked king and pronounced his verdict, “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:23 ESV) Saul, trapped in a corner provided his own half-hearted repentance, which was no repentance at all. Saul said, “I have sinned … because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:24 ESV) And this is what led to his failure, and everyone else who follows after his lead.

When we fear the opinions of men and women more than God, we are guaranteed to lose everything. Jesus did not say “Blessed are you when everyone celebrates your virtue signaling.” He said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 ESV) This is not a call to be rude, but to be honest.

Our world has enough half-hearted Christians who fear men more than God. Our world needs better. But this demands something from us which many of us naturally lack: courage and a willingness to stand alone for God.

We will never accomplish great things for God as long as we lack these two things. Therefore, my prayer for you is simple: see in Saul the inevitable conclusion of every cowardly tendency in your own heart. And see in the Lord Jesus the great treasure of heaven that awaits all who willingly surrender even their reputation and goods for the sake of honoring the word of our great God.