People are enamored with impressive appearances. But the Bible is consistent in teaching that it is character—what is in the heart—that counts. This was true of the underappreciated Samuel and the impressive new king, Saul.
Israel is clamoring for a king so they can be like all the nations around them. Samuel has and will continue to warn them of the bitter consequences of this decision. Kingship will bring hardship.
The people of Israel are making the wrong choice for the wrong reason. They are rejecting God’s leadership. They are trading in a theocracy (the rule of God) for a monarchy (the rule of man).
Now let’s pick up our study here in chapter 9:
There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish . . . a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. (verses 1-2)
Why does Samuel emphasize Saul’s impressive physical attributes? Well, I think it’s because the Israelites were looking for somebody who was impressive. They were a lot like people today—more interested in charisma than character. Nations so often choose leaders on the basis of how they look, instead of how they live.
Saul is this big, handsome young man, from a wealthy, influential family, but Saul is also a young man with some amazing potential. You might already know that Saul will ultimately fail both God and Israel, but at the outset here, let me point out some qualities that could have made him an honorable king.
First, Saul was a sensitive son. Verse 3 says, “The donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to Saul his son, ‘Take one of the young men with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys.’” Now you might expect this wealthy young son to refuse this demeaning assignment, but he immediately obeys.
After searching over a large area without finding the donkeys, verse 5 informs us that Saul says to the servant who is with him, “Come, let us go back, lest my father cease to care about the donkeys and become anxious about us.” Here’s a son who is sensitive to his father’s feelings and doesn’t want him to worry. Don’t you wish every son was sensitive enough to not want his parents to worry about him?
Now at this point the young man says to Saul here in verse 6 that they ought to go ask the man of God in the nearby city for some help. Well, that man of God is none other than Samuel. And in verses 15 and 16 we learn that God told Samuel that Saul was going to come looking for him, and the Lord instructed Samuel, “You shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines.”
When we come to chapter 10, we find that is exactly what Samuel does:
Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said … “You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.” (verse 1)
Now let me give you a second positive quality of Saul—modesty. Samuel tells Saul God will give him three signs to reassure him that he is to be king. In verse 2 he says two men will meet Saul and tell him the donkeys have been found. Then in verses 3 and 4 it’s revealed that three men will give Saul food to eat. And the final sign, given in verse 6, is that Saul will actually join in with a group of prophets and experience the anointing of the Spirit of God.
All these signs come to pass, but when Saul returns home and his uncle asks him where he’s been, the text says, “But about the matter of the kingdom, of which Samuel had spoken, [Saul] did not tell him anything” (verse 16). Most people would have published their promotion near and far.
Saul’s modesty is probably mixed with a third quality, which we will call healthy fear. When Samuel brings all Israel’s tribes together to crown Saul, verse 21 says, “But when they sought him, he could not be found.”
Here’s the public coronation of Israel’s king. The lot is taken to confirm God’s choice. But where is Saul? Verse 22 tells us that Saul was hiding “among the baggage”—all the utensils and vessels and supplies brought by the tribes as they have journeyed to Mizpah. Saul is hiding there behind the wagons. When they bring him out before the people, verse 24 says “And all the people shouted, ‘Long live the king!’”
The fourth admirable quality in Saul is humility. Verse 27 informs us: “Some worthless fellows said, ‘How can this man save us?’ And they despised him.” Notice Saul’s response: “He held his peace.”
Now is Saul seething on the inside or leaving this in God’s hands? Well, we find out after Saul leads the Israelite army to victory here in chapter 11. Under Saul’s leadership, Israel rescues the city of Jabesh-gilead, which is surrounded by an Ammonite army. Verse 11 tells us Saul’s army “struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day.”
And now the Israelites remember those men who had scoffed at Saul’s kingship. They say to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death” (verse 12).
Samuel doesn’t respond here, but Saul does. He says, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel” (verse 13). I believe this kind of humility galvanized a divided people into a strong nation.
In chapter 12, the focus shifts back to Samuel in what is essentially his farewell address to the nation of Israel. First, Samuel reassures the nation in verses 1-6 that he has led them without taking bribes or pursuing the perks of power and greed. He is effectively saying, “My hands are clean.”
Second, in verses 7-11 Samuel reminds the people of God’s faithfulness by recounting events from Israel’s history. Samuel wants God to receive all the glory.
Third, in verses 12-13, Samuel rebukes the people for wanting a human king rather than following God as their king. So, even to his last sermon, Samuel is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Fourth, Samuel restates the primary responsibility of Israel. Even though they have a king, they are still accountable to God. He says:
“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 obey the voice of the Lord . . . then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king.” (verses 14-15)
Samuel’s passion and concern for Israel is beautifully expressed in verse 23: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.” What a great man Samuel was. He wasn’t perfect, but he was passionate in his priorities before God and these people.
We have covered a lot of territory in these chapters. Let me wrap it up by giving three quick principles of application. First, from Saul: A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a good ending, as we will see. From the nation: Seeking the wrong thing may hinder us from receiving the best thing. And then from Samuel: Praying for others isn’t an option; it’s an opportunity to make a difference for eternity.