Before you read this post, read “I Have Rejected Saul” – Part 1
Samuel’s Reaction to Saul’s Rejection
After Samuel left Saul, Samuel went to his house in Ramah and Saul went to his house in Gibeah of Saul (1 Samuel 15:34). Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death. This separation meant that Saul was deprived of the blessings of Yahweh and the support of Samuel. Samuel grieved over Saul but Saul never knew how much Samuel wept and prayed for him.
After Saul disobeyed God for the second time, the Lord said: “‘I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.’ And Samuel was angry; and he cried to the LORD all night” (1 Samuel 15:11).
Samuel was angry, not with Saul but with God, because God had changed his mind about Saul and had decided to take the kingship away from him. It is clear that at the beginning Samuel was against the anointing of a king because he believed kingship was a rejection of Yahweh. However, it is possible that after Saul was chosen to be the new king, Samuel developed an affection for Saul. This then suggests that Samuel opposed the rejection of Saul and that probably he was unwilling to participate in the anointing of a new king.
Some translations attempt to soften Samuel’s anger against God. The following are a few examples of how translations deal with Samuel’s anger:
“Samuel was distressed” (1 Samuel 15:11 TNK).
“Samuel was troubled” (1 Samuel 15:11 NIV),
“Samuel was very sad” (1 Samuel 15:11 BBE).
“And it grieved Samuel” (1 Samuel 15:11 KJV).
“Samuel was appalled” (1 Samuel 15:11 NJB).
The reason for this mitigating of Samuel’s anger is because some commentators believe that Samuel was grieving over Saul for his failure as king and because his behavior would bring dishonor to God. Others believe that Saul’s disobedience was a rejection of Samuel and his prophetic office. But the text is clear that Samuel was not angry at Saul. In fact, McCarter (1980: 258) says that “Samuel was enraged” at God. His anger is directed at God because of his rejection of Saul. David was also angry with God when God killed Uzzah for touching the Ark (2 Samuel 6:8).
As a result, Samuel “cried to the LORD all night” (1 Samuel 15:11). Hertzberg (1964: 126) explains the intent of Samuel’s agonizing prayer: “Here is remarkable that Samuel is painfully distressed and evidently does not agree. Samuel ‘crying’ all night to the Lord can only mean that he is attempting to make him change his mind.” Samuel was seeking to persuade God to change his mind about his decision to reject Saul’s kingship. In the end, Samuel’s prayer was not effective in changing God’s mind about his decision to reject Saul’s kingship.
The Repentance of God
Samuel prayed to God all night, probably asking God to change his mind about rejecting Saul. While Samuel was grieving over Saul’s rejection, Yahweh was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. Yahweh appears to Samuel and rebukes him for grieving over Saul: “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).
The statement that Yahweh repents or changes his mind appears three times in 1 Samuel 15. These three occurrences have confused some people because twice it says that God repents and once it says that God does not repent. A brief study of the three statements will help us understand the rejection of Saul.
“I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments” (1 Samuel 15:11).
This text mentions God’s regret that he chose Saul as king for Saul rebelled against God by disobeying his word. Hertzberg (1964: 126) explains the importance of this concept:
Here we have the theological important concept of the repentance of God: God is not slavishly bound by his own decisions, but is almighty to such an extent that he is the Lord even of them. Just as he takes the action of men into consideration in his decisions, so that omnipotence never means that man is deprived of his responsibility, so, too, the election of the king is not irrevocable. God can at any time lay aside the instrument which he is using if it appears to him to be neither tried not suitable.
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Samuel 15:29).
The statement in 1 Samuel 15:29 in which Samuel said to Saul that “the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent” must be understood in the total context of God’s rejection of Saul. In 1 Samuel 15:11, Samuel prayed all night asking God to change his mind about his rejection of Saul, but Samuel’s prayer was not answered.
When Saul realized that God had rejected him, he came to Samuel and said: “Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:25). Samuel answered Saul and said: “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” (1 Samuel 15:26). In addition, Samuel told 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” (1 Samuel 15:28).
Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him and had given his kingdom to another man. Although Samuel had prayed asking God to change his mind and although Saul had asked God to forgive him, God could not go back on his decision to reject Saul. The reason Samuel told Saul that God could not restore the kingdom to him was because God had made a decision and he could not revoke his decision. Samuel said to Saul: “God has selected another person to take your place and he cannot revoke his decision because God will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent.”
“And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35).
This is the second time that the LORD said he repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (see 15:11 above). This declaration reveals the great disappointment of God over Saul’s action. As Samuel had said, Yahweh really intended to established Saul’s kingdom over Israel forever (1 Samuel 13:13), but Saul never became the kind of king God expected him to be. The repentance of God occurs when human beings fail to achieve God’s intent for them. Because Saul failed to abide by the expectations imposed upon him, God had to reject Saul’s kingship and begin again with another man who would become the new king, one who would rule under different expectations.
The rejection of Saul is a complicated topic of study because there are many issues that at times are misunderstood or not clear in the minds of many readers. Here are some of the issues.
1. God himself chose Saul to be the first king of Israel. The Hebrew word for “choose” is the same world also translated “elect” in English. The same God who elected Saul to be king in Israel is the same God who rejected him as king.
2. The rejection of Saul’s kingship is not a rejection of Saul as an individual. What God rejected was not the person of Saul but what that person represented. As king, Saul was a representative of God before the people.
3. Saul was rejected by God because of Saul’s disobedience: “The word of the LORD came to Samuel: ‘I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments’” (1 Samuel 15:10-11).
4. God’s intent was to establish Saul and his family as his representative in Israel: “Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you; for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever’” (1 Samuel 13:13).
5. Saul’s kingship was conditional; it was based on the obedience of Saul and the people to the commandments of God (1 Samuel 12:14-15). Saul was aware of this demand, therefore, his rejection by God was not a surprise to him.
6. The establishment of the monarchy in Israel and the selection of Saul as king reveal an important character of God. The God of the Old Testament is not legalistic nor a God who is unwilling to compromise. As Fretheim (1985: 600-601) puts it, “God moves with the people; God is willing to try new directions; God takes the people’s point of view into consideration . . . God takes into account human thought and action . . . . It is this view of God which is the decisive one for the entire Saul narrative; for without it, Saul’s kingship would not have existed.”
Fretheim summarizes God’s role and work in the rejection of Saul:
This narrative, then, is a vivid testimony to the historical character of God’s activity in the world, both in what God does to initiate the kingship in the first place and in the changes God makes in view of new circumstances. God works with what is available at any moment, with human beings as they are, with all their foibles and flaws, and within existing societal structures and possibilities, however inadequate. But God does not only “make do” with what is there to work with; at the same time God places a high level of confidence in the human instruments chosen—in this case Saul, as well as the people. God’s activity is thus conditioned and limited by such structures, which in turn are always changing, and with which God needs to move as well, given the way in which he has chosen to relate to the world (Fretheim 1985: 601).
Next: “I Have Chosen David”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Fretheim, Terence E. “Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 595-602.
Hertzberg, Hanz W. I & II Samuel. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964.
McCarter Jr, P. Kyle. 1 Samuel. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Oswalt, John N. “bāḥar,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 100-101. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.