“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel’” (1 Samuel 16:1).
This passage raises many questions about the nature and character of God. What kind of God would choose a man to be king and then reject him as a king? Why did Yahweh reject Saul? Some people say that Saul was rejected because it was the people who chose Saul to be king in Israel and not Yahweh. This view contradicts what the Bible says about Saul’s selection to be the first king of Israel. In order to properly understand God’s rejection of Saul, it is necessary to review the rise of the monarchy in Israel.
The Establishment of the Monarchy
The establishment of the monarchy in Israel must be understood in the context of Israel’s wars against the Philistines. The Bible says that when Samuel grew old, he appointed his two sons, Joel and Abijah, as judges in Beer-sheba. But his sons sinned against God by taking bribes and perverting justice (1 Samuel 8:2-3). In light of the failure of Samuel’s sons, the people of Israel came to Samuel demanding that he appoint a king to rule over them.
Samuel was very unhappy with the people’s request because it was a rejection of the ancient traditions of Israel. Samuel brought the people’s request to God. In response to Samuel’s inquiry, Yahweh said to Samuel: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Although a superficial reading of the text may simply emphasize that Israel wanted to be “like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5), the threat posed by the Philistines shows “that God’s primary concern in all of this is for the future of Israel” (Fretheim 1985: 601). Since Israel was chosen by God to be a special nation in the world, certain expectations were placed upon Saul and the people in order to insure that Israel would be different from the other nations and in order to reinforce the fact that Yahweh was the true king of Israel. Thus, the establishment of the monarchy in Israel is a good example of how God works in the world.
The permanency of Saul’s kingship was based on the obedience of the king and of the people. When Samuel introduced the new king to Israel, Samuel said to the people: “See, here is the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; see, the LORD has set a king over you. If you will fear the LORD and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well; but if you will not heed the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king” (1 Samuel 12:13-15).
God’s warning to Saul and the people is clear: they must fear the Lord, serve him, obey him, and not rebel against his commandments. However, if Israel and the king rebel against his commandments, the Lord will be against the people and against the king. The king and the nation stand together before God; the future of Saul’s kingship depends on Saul and the people obeying or not obeying.
The Selection of Saul
The Bible is very clear on who chose Saul to be king: “ Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen?’” (1 Samuel 10:24). It was Yahweh himself who chose Saul to be the first king of Israel. In Hebrew, the word “to choose” is bāḥar. The word bāḥar can be translated as “to choose, to elect.” It is clear that Yahweh elected Saul to become king of Israel. As Fretheim puts it, “In a quite remarkable consent to the desires and argumentation of the people, God himself ends up initiating the monarchy as the best way to proceed in Saul’s time and place” (Fretheim 1985: 600). As we shall see below, because of his disobedience, Saul was rejected by the same God who had elected him.
In his article on bāḥar, Oswalt, wrote,
The word is used to express that choosing which has ultimate and eternal significance. On the one hand God chooses a people (Psa 135:4), certain tribes (Psa 78:68), specific individuals (1Kings 8:16; 1Chr 28:5; 1Sam 10:24; 2Sam 6:21), and a place for his name (Deut 12:5; etc.). In all of these cases serviceability rather than simple arbitrariness is at the heart of the choosing. Thus Yahweh chose Israel to be holy and thereby to serve as his witness among the nations (Deut 14:6). But her election is not based on her own greatness but on the greatness of the Lord’s love (Deut 7:7ff.). The choice of Israel is confirmed by the exile and restoration, for in a new way Israel now bears witness of the Lord to the nations (Isa 41:8ff.; Isa 43:10; Isa 48:10). The scriptural doctrine of divine capacity for choice demonstrates that purpose and personality, not blind mechanism, are at the heart of the universe. Since God carefully chooses certain ones for a specific task, he can also reject them if they deviate from that purpose (Oswalt, 1980: 100).
Oswalt’s last statement is very significant: “Since God carefully chooses certain ones for a specific task, he can also reject them if they deviate from that purpose.” It is in light of God’s sovereignty in choosing and rejecting people according to God’s purpose that we must understand Saul’s rejection. Fretheim explains God’s work in the establishment of the monarchy as follows: “This divine way of working is also a testimony to how God subjects himself to extreme vulnerability. God goes along with the people in their desire for the kingship, and by so doing opens himself up to criticism, even failure” (Fretheim 1985: 602).
If the new king is not faithful to the obligations imposed upon him by God, then the king will fail as God’s representative in Israel and he will be rejected by God. Due to the king’s failure, a new king will be chosen and God will have to begin again. This is the reason for the rejection of Saul and the selection of David as the new king, a topic to be explored in my next post.
The Rejection of Saul
The First Rejection
There are two accounts of Saul’s rejection in the book of 1 Samuel. The first rejection is in 1 Samuel 13:8-15: “Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you. The LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you’” (1 Samuel 13:13-14).
Samuel told Saul: “And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do” (1 Samuel 10:8). In preparation for his battle against the Philistines, Saul was asked to wait seven days; at the end of that time Samuel would come and present the sacrifices to Yahweh and sanctify the army of Israel for battle. Because Samuel was delayed, Saul offered the sacrifices himself.
Saul did not do what Samuel had commanded. The rejection of Saul came because he refused to obey the commandment of the Lord. Saul’s kingship was based on his willingness to obey the Lord’s commandments. Samuel said to Saul: “The LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.” The continuation of Saul’s dynasty depended on his obedience, but because he failed to obey, his kingship was not established.
The Second Rejection
The second rejection is found in 1 Samuel 15:1-35. Saul was commanded by Yahweh to attack the Amalekites. The Amalekites were an old enemy of Israel. This battle was seen as a punishment of the Amalekites for what they had done to Israel at the time they came out of Egypt: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt” (1 Samuel 15:2).
The war against the Amalekites involved the practice of herem or “total destruction.” When the institution of ḥērem was invoked, then the battle was a war of Yahweh, a war in which the spoils were holy to Yahweh. In this kind of war, the enemy and their possessions were completely destroyed. Although the invocation of the ḥērem was limited in Israel, the institution of the ḥērem was a primitive religious practice common in the Ancient Near East.
Saul was commanded to totally destroy the Amalekites: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul failed to obey the command of God by allowing Agag, the king of the Amalekites, to live. Saul believed that he had done what he was told to do. Saul said to Samuel: “May you be blessed by the LORD; I have carried out the command of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:13). But Samuel told Saul that Yahweh was not satisfied. Saul told Samuel that he had destroyed the Amalekites but that he brought sheep and cattle “and the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal”
In response, Samuel said to 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, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
The sin of Saul was rebellion, a deliberate rejection of the word and command of God. Samuel told Saul that what God wanted was obedience and not sacrifice. According to Samuel, Saul was stubborn and rebellious. Although Saul confessed his disobedience and sought reconciliation, the Lord had rejected him as king over Israel. The sentence had been given and God would not change his mind.
After the sentence was passed and Saul understood the consequences of his action, Saul and Samuel exchanged words, words full of pathos for both Saul and Samuel:
Saul said to Samuel: “Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the LORD” (15:25).
Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (15:26).
As Samuel turned to go away, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore (15:27).
And Samuel said to Saul: “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (15:28).
Note: The bibliography for this post will be included at the end of Part 2
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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