What Did Saul Think About Himself?

Samuel Reproving Saul
by John Singleton Copley (1798)
\Wikimedia Commons

In a previous post, “King Saul: Little in His Own Eyes,” I wrote that Saul, the first king of Israel, had an inferiority complex. This conclusion was based on Samuel’s words when Saul failed to obey the command of Yahweh. Samuel said to Saul, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:17). I wrote,

Because of Saul’s disobedience, Samuel withdrew his support from Saul. The lack of prophetical approval was devastating to Saul. Together with the stress posed by the rise of David, that sense of rejection by Samuel practically destroyed Saul as a leader of Israel.

Saul’s problem was the same problem faced by people everywhere. People need to find affirmation in their own heart that other people support and affirm them. This sense of affirmation creates personal growth and helps develop strong personalities. On the other hand, when people have the perception, real or imaginary, that they are rejected by others, they develop a sense of inferiority which can be compounded by low self-esteem.

The feeling of inferiority that affects so many people in our society comes from different sources. Saul’s problem came because of his faulty relationship with Samuel. Saul found himself in a situation where his abilities as a king, his attitude toward the responsibility of his office, and his obedience to God’s command were denigrated and criticized by Samuel.

Saul had worked hard to be worthy of his office and to please the people around him. He made an attempt at justifying his actions by providing his own rationale for the reasons he failed to abide by the words of Samuel, but he failed.

Saul’s need for social approval acted as a powerful motivator for his actions. As a king, Saul believed that he needed the approval of the people and especially, the approval of Samuel. People with low self-esteem often need the approval of other people in order to give them the required social boost they so desperately seek.

Saul’s problem was that he forgot who he was. Samuel said to him: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:17). Saul believed that he was a nobody, that nobody cared for him, and yet, he was the king of Israel and the one chosen by God to govern the people. His feelings of inferiority destroyed his kingship.

In that post, I did not mention the problems in translating the Hebrew text of Samuel’s words. Below are examples of how English translations translated what Samuel said to Saul.

Some translations seem to indicate that Saul’s problem was a problem that he had even though he had achieved a position of great importance when he became king of Israel.

This view is adopted by the NRSV: “Samuel said, ‘Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel’” (1 Samuel 15:17). Samuel’s expression “you are little in your own eyes” indicates that Saul believed that “he was little in his own yeas” in the present, now that he was king of Israel. This present view of how Saul felt about himself has been adopted by the ESV, the NAB, the NJB, the TNK, and a few others translations.

Some translations seem to indicate that Saul’s problem was in the past, before he became the first king of Israel.

This view is adopted by the NIV: “Samuel said, ‘Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel’” (1 Samuel 15:17). According to the translation of the NIV, Samuel’s expression “you were once small in your own eyes” indicates that before Saul became king, Saul felt that he was not worthy of becoming king of Israel, but after he became a king, he no longer was small in his own eyes.

Those translations that believe that Saul had a problem in how he viewed himself before he became a king, use different expressions to declare what Saul thought about himself.

The CSB says: “you once considered yourself unimportant.”

The BBE: “you may seem little to yourself.”

The GWN: “Even though you don’t consider yourself great.”

The NET: “Is it not true that when you were insignificant in your own eyes.”

The NLT: “Although you may think little of yourself.”

The Septuagint (LXX) presents a different perspective on what Samuel said to Saul. The NRSV says that Samuel said to Saul that he was little in his own eyes. The Septuagint says that Samuel told Saul that he was not small before God: “Are you not small before him” (NETS).

These different translations of the text have resulted in different interpretations by scholars on what Samuel told Saul. For instance, Tony Cartledge says that before Saul became a king, he was a humble man. She writes, “Samuel’s reply was heated and direct. He charged that Saul once had been a humble man (‘small in his own eyes’) (Cartledge 2002: 195).

Walter Brueggemann believes that Samuel was telling Saul that he was a nobody. Brueggemann writes, “The first element is a reminder to Saul that he is in fact a nobody. His only claim to power is that he has been anointed by Yahweh through the powerful legitimation of Samuel” (Brueggemann 1990: 24).

Kirkpatrick says that Samuel was referring to Saul’s words when he was chosen to be a king. At that time, Saul said to Samuel, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” (1 Samuel 9:21).

Kirkpatrick writes, “There is a reference to Saul’s own words of astonishment that he should be chosen as king (ix. 21). The prophet desires to remind him that as his elevation came solely from God, obedience was due to God” (Kirkpatrick 1884:145).

The context of Samuel’s words indicates that Samuel was not referring to what Saul was before he became a king, but to what Saul believed himself to be now that he was a king and what he had failed to do in the present. Samuel spoke to Saul after Saul spared the life of Agag, king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:8–9). Saul’s reason for not killing Agag was because he was trying to please his soldiers, who were beginning to doubt his abilities as king. Saul also did what the people had asked him to do.

Smith says that Samuel’s words were “a rebuke of Saul’s self-confessed subservience to the people” (Smith 1899: 136). Smith concludes that “it seems safest to adhere to the received text” (Smith 1899: 138). In the Hebrew Bible the combination of the words אִם־לאֹ, ’im and lō’, is an emphatic affirmative, generally translated as “surely” in English. A literal translation of the Hebrew text indicates that Samuel is telling Saul something that is a fact in the present: “Samuel said: ‘Are you not indeed small in your eyes?’”

The failure of Saul to follow God’s commandment in dealing with the Amalekites was another failure of Saul in discharging his responsibility as king. Brueggemann says that in this exchange between Samuel and Saul, Saul is presented as a failure.

As king, Saul was commanded to “listen to the words of Yahweh” (1 Samuel 15:1 NJB). The Hebrew word שְׁמַע, šema‘, means “to listen, to obey.” Saul’s biggest failure was not to obey the command of Yahweh. Yahweh said to Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (1 Samuel 15:11). The words “my commandments” indicate that Saul had disobeyed Yahweh more than once.

Saul was commanded to kill Agag, the Amalekite king, but Saul and the people spared Agag (1 Samuel 15:9). Saul was commanded to destroy the animals that belonged to the Amalekites, but Saul and the people had spared the animals to offer them to Yahweh as a sacrifice. Samuel told Saul, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).

As a consequence of Saul’s rejection of the words of Yahweh, now Yahweh was rejecting Saul as king, “Since you have rejected Yahweh’s word, he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:23 NJB). Saul continued reigning as king for a few more years, but in name only, because Yahweh had rejected him as king over his people.

Saul was little in his own eyes because he tried to please people around him. One of the symptoms of an inferiority complex is low self-esteem and a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity. Another symptom is the desire to please others, even if at their own expense. People with an inferiority complex have a tendency to blame others for things for which they should take personal responsibility.

Saul displayed most of the symptoms of a person who has a complex of inferiority. Saul was angry when his soldiers disobeyed him at the command of his son Jonathan. When Saul ordered Jonathan’s execution for disobeying his orders, the people intervened and overruled the King’s order (1 Samuel 14:43–45).

To emphasize to the people that he was the reason for the victory against the Amalekites, after the battle, Saul went to Carmel and “set up a monument in his own honor” (1 Samuel 15:12 NIV).

Saul feared the rejection of the people and put them above the command of Yahweh, “Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice’” (1 Samuel 15:24). As a king, Saul was to fear and obey the voice of Yahweh (1 Samuel 15:1), but in order to gain the favor of the people,  Saul “feared the people and obeyed their voice.”

Saul needed the approval of the people in order to be respected as king. After Samuel told Saul that Yahweh had rejected his kingship, Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel” (1 Samuel 15:30).

Saul was the king of Israel and yet, “he was little in his own eyes.” The reading of the NIV, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17 NIV) is wrong, because Saul was “the head of the tribes of Israel” and yet, he was still “little in his own eyes.”

NOTE: For other studies on Saul, read my post Saul, King of Israel.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brueggemann, Walter. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Cartledge, Tony W. 1 & 2 Samuel. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Kirkpatrick, A. F. The First Book of Samuel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1884.

Mariottini, Claude. “King Saul: Little in His Own Eyes.”

Smith, Henry P. Samuel. The International Critical Commentary. New York< Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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