Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading the Bible books of Judges, Ruth and 1 Samuel. What an account of deeply flawed people attempting to speak and to act for God. It’s common to talk of a ‘Judges cycle’ in which the people of God fall away from God’s ways, become oppressed by enemies, and are rescued both politically and spiritually by a charismatic leader, whereupon the cycle begins again. But in many ways it’s more like a slippery slope down which the nation which is supposed to be the people of God descends more and more into intertribal conflict and barbarity, accompanied by religion which is more interested in form than content: hasty oaths, for example, which can not be broken even though they lead to murder of the innocent. The ancient chronicler of this tragedy sums up thus:
In those days Israel had no king, so the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
A king, then, would solve the problem, right? But the prophet and judge, Samuel, warns that monarchy per se is not the answer; a king would introduce a feudal system which would be to the detriment of the nation (1 Sam 8). Still, Saul gets appointed, and all seems well for a while: not only does he lead them to some military victories, but he also proves humble and restrained (1 Sam 11:12-13). But that first part of Saul’s reign is not the major concern of the Bible writer: the story moves quickly from his ascension to the throne aged 30 to the point at which he has a son who is old enough to command an army (1 Sam 13:1-2), and now we find an insecure, autocratic ruler. Saul is not rejected as king in 1Sam 13 for offering sacrifices wrongly, but for failing to be “a man after [God's] own heart.”
Saul’s departure from the ‘heart’ relationship with God is further shown in the next episode (1 Sam 14), in which his son, Jonathan, initiates a great victory. Saul swears a stupid oath, one which is not only self-centred, but also abusive to his exhausted troops, that anyone who eats that day, before the final victory is secured, must die. Jonathan unwittingly eats some honey found in the woods: would God expect that oath to be kept, (parallels here with Jephthah and his daughter in earlier days)? The army intervenes, refusing to sacrifice the hero of the day, and Saul is shown to have been foolish.
The last episode, sealing Saul’s rejection as king, is his duplicity when, after a defeat of the Amalekites, he does not destroy everything as commanded, but keeps good quality livestock and spares the king’s life. When caught out, he pleads that the animals were going to be sacrificed (honest, really they were!!), to which Samuel’s (and God’s) response is that “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam 15:22)
It strikes me that each of these episodes is included not only to justify Saul’s rejection as king, but also to convey some very important truths about God. It’s easy to see God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, as severe, very concerned for the letter of the Law and ready to punish anyone who steps out of line. On the contrary, says 1Samuel: God is looking for heart obedience rather than formal toeing of the line. Each of the times Saul slips up, he has been more concerned to retain or enhance his own glory and success than to consider others, in particular to keep the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
We next see Samuel anointing David as king (significantly, the Lord looked at his heart when choosing – 1Sam 16:7) and though it takes some time for Saul’s reign to end, the ongoing saga shows him as an increasingly weak, capricious and jealous man.
To which I respond: Lord, have mercy. Reading this over the past few weeks I’ve also been reading and watching news of rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa, and following our domestic politics. How many people suffer because of the follies of a few! Those who are out to build an empire for themselves must surely be ripe for judgement, and who would not pray for people with God’s own heart, those for whom obedience is better than sacrifice, to be leading our nations?
And also, let me not ignore the plank in my own eye. God save me from sticking to convention instead of being merciful; from justifying my sin instead of repenting of it; from being so wrapped up with the many things I think I have to do that I fail to spend the time to properly understand God’s ways.