He chose … poorly

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 [Click here for another post on this passage]

Saul and David – what a contrast.

Saul the self-serving, greedy king – David, the man after God’s own heart.
Saul, the people’s choice – David, chosen by God.
Saul, the sinner – David, the saint.

But hang on (sound effect of a needle scratching on a record), that’s not quite right, is it?

every saintTry this instead:
Saul, the king who tried to murder his enemy but didn’t – David the king who succeeded in murdering his … well, not even his enemy. It was his heroic army general who was also the inconvenient husband of the woman he’d abducted and got pregnant.

Not a pretty story for the golden boy of the Old Testament.

In fact, when you look at it, I do wonder what was so bad about Saul and what was so great about David. Sure Saul did some things wrong. Who doesn’t? But he repented afterwards and asked for forgiveness (look at 15:25). Why did God still reject Saul? The Bible records far more sinning by David than by Saul, yet God sticks with David through it all, forgiving him over and over. Why?

It reminds me of the rather odd story from Genesis 4, when Cain’s offering was rejected but Abel’s was fine. Why?

I think we can get a clue for the first puzzle from the second.

We’re never told what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice – grain offerings were perfectly fine, so it wasn’t the gift per se. But look at Cain’s reaction. He was angry with God for rejecting his gift, then killed his brother and lied about it to God. Yeesh!

Cain’s hands may have gone through the motions of honouring God with a gift, but it doesn’t sound like his heart was honouring God at all. It’s a huge pity. Cain could have chosen a better response to the rebuke. He chose … poorly.

And I think that’s what was going on with Saul, too. Outwardly, he was doing the right things, but something inside was wrong.

In chapter 13 he waits a whole week for Samuel to make offerings to the Lord and when Samuel doesn’t show up Saul, unwilling to go into battle without God’s blessing, performs the rite himself. Sounds like an honourable thing to do. If it had been David instead of Saul we’d be all, “Oh, yes, this is showing that all believers are priests. Well done, David.” But no, Saul’s offering is rejected.

In chapter 14 Saul is careful to obey food laws, he consults God before battle and is even prepared to execute his son for transgressing a vow (although that was nothing to do with God’s laws). Sounds very devout, yes? Apparently not.

In chapter 15 Saul greets Samuel with the words, “The Lord bless you!” and confirms that he has followed God’s command (to destroy the wicked Amalekites and everything they owned) to the letter. I can imagine Samuel slowing putting his hand to his ear with sarcastically raised eyebrows. “Oh really? Then what is this bleating of sheep that I hear? What is this lowing of cows?”

“Oh, ummn,” splutters Saul, “the soldiers brought those here. Nothing to do with me. And they’re a gift for the Lord your God, so that’s OK, isn’t it?”

No. It isn’t.

Saul argues. “Yes, I know God said to do that, but surely it’s better to do this?”

No. It isn’t.

And Samuel replies with one of the Old Testament’s best sound-bites. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” In other words, “It ain’t what you do it’s the why that you do it.”

When David had a similar rebuke from Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, he immediately repented and wrote Psalm 51 asking for God’s forgiveness. Saul’s response to being told he’d got it wrong is different. He asks forgiveness of Samuel, (not God) and asks Samuel to help keep up appearances by accompanying him to “worship the Lord your God” (v 30).

Samuel’s God, not Saul’s.

Saul was great at doing and saying the right things. He talked the talk just fine. He didn’t walk the walk. Faith in God, for Saul, had become about rules, not relationship. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. That is such a sad sentence.

Not that God’s choice was wrong. Just like Cain, Saul could have chosen better responses to God’s rebukes through Samuel. But Saul chose … poorly.

We, too, have choices. We can choose how to react to God’s call. We can choose how to respond when we do stuff wrong. We can choose whether to follow what we believe to be God’s instructions, or to substitute our own better ideas. (Check though the Bible; that has never worked out well.)


(and it’s a huge but)

Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.

There is nothing you could ever do, or have ever done, that is too big for God to forgive. Look at David: if God can work with a CV like his, he can work with yours, too (and mine).

But also, we can’t rest on our laurels. Saul started off as God’s anointed, but his choices showed that it was never a heart thing with him. Not like it would be with David, dismal failure though he was.

At this point in his story, David has not yet messed up big time. But the important thing is that always, always David looked to his God. Not Samuel’s god, not his dad’s, not the god of his country, David’s God. It was always about relationship, never rules.

Good job God loves dismal failures, ain’t it?


1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

New International Version – UK

Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’

But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’

The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’

Samuel replied, ‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’

But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’

Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’

‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’

Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’

So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.


“He chose… poorly” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

“It’s ain’t what you do” by Sy Oliver, Trummy Young,  performed by Bananarama. (1982)

“Every saint …” Oscar Wilde, from ‘A Woman of No Importance’. (1893)

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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