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King Saul: A Picture of Sin


King Saul got a raw deal; or so I thought the first time I read his story (and the 2nd and 3rd times too).  God made Saul king — the first king of Israel — and then voided his kingship.  Why?  It’s true, Saul disobeyed God’s instructions but he wasn’t unique in that regard.  Other kings, like David, disobeyed God and didn’t have their kingship voided.  What did Saul do that was so wrong?

Good questions!

God called me to re-read Saul’s story.  He showed me that Saul is a picture of sin, and that Saul’s story serves as a warning to me, and others, who arrive at this decision fork:  will I rely upon God’s Word or upon my own wisdom?

In this re-reading, God suggested to my mind that Saul’s character was a picture of my character.  Needless to say, that got my attention.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself…)

The Hebrew spelling of “saul” means two different things.  The Israelites pronounced his name “sha’ul,” which means “asked for” or “prayed for.” But, in another context, the term is pronounced sheol, which means “grave,” “pit,” or “abode of the dead.”  This double meaning is dramatic irony, to use a literary term — it foreshadows how Saul’s story would unfold, which is itself symbolic of how the nation of Israel’s story would unfold.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself…)

Here’s what happened: The Israelites saw that all the other nations had kings and so they too wanted a king, to be like the other nations.  God didn’t call the Israelites to be like the other nations; He called them to be set apart in a special relationship with Him.  But the Israelites demanded the prophet Samuel appoint a king over them, even though this went against God’s will and desire.  Samuel was displeased and went to God for guidance. “Do everything they say to you,” the Lord replied, “for it is me they are rejecting, not you.  They don’t want me to be their king any longer.” (1 Samuel 8:5-7)

Meanwhile, young Saul, son of Kish, had been sent by his father to retrieve his donkeys which had wandered off and gotten lost.  To the Israelites, donkeys symbolized “material things.”  In Hebrew, the word for donkey is chamor, derived from the word chamar, which conveys these concepts: “a primitive root; to ferment (with scum); to smear with pitch.”  This insight suggests that Saul was sent on a fool’s errand — a red herring, as it were — which is precisely how God regarded the Israelites’ demand that someone other than He should be king.  In short, to be seeking donkeys (material things) is to be distracted from what matters most (Godly and spiritual things) and to become fouled up in the process (chamar).  This foreshadows the stories of both Saul and the nation of Israel.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself…)

While on his errand, Saul met the prophet Samuel who told him that God had chosen him to be king over Israel.  This was surprising news to Saul, who hadn’t set out to become king.  Samuel was pleased because Saul was handsome, a full head taller than the average man, and he came from an affluent family.  In short, Saul looked the part!  (This set off a red flag in my mind: God doesn’t look at people the way we do.  He tends to do great things through humble people, not people who look kingly.)  Sure enough, after Samuel anointed Saul and prayed over him, the power of the Lord came upon Saul and he prophesied and did some great things.  He mustered an army and defeated the Ammonites, who had been oppressing the Israelite city of Jabesh Gilead.

Later, heading into what should have been one of his finest moments in leading the Israelites to a resounding victory, Saul was rebuked by Samuel, who had instructed Saul to wait seven days for his arrival.  Their plan was to present a sacrificial offering to God together before Saul attacked the enemy.  But Saul didn’t wait.  He feared the enemy was closing in so he grew impatient and offered the sacrifice before Samuel arrived on the seventh day.  “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure…” (1 Samuel 13:13-14)

“Whoa!  Wait, what?” a voice in me protested. “One minor slip up and that’s it, you lose your kingdom?!  The enemy was coming!  Saul had to prepare his men for battle!  If I was Saul, I might have done the same thing.  Taking away his kingdom over that seems like harsh punishment.”

That battle was Mine, not Saul’s.  But the issue wasn’t the battle; the issue was trust.  Saul didn’t trust Me.  Would you have trusted Me?  Or, would you have acted hastily, in the image of Saul / sheol?  Would you have fought that battle in your own strength?  Or, would you have waited for My appointed time and relied upon My strength?    

I have to admit, I generally don’t wait for God’s appointed time, nor do I generally rely upon His strength and wisdom.  I tend to shoot first and take aim later.  In my haste, I often speak or act foolishly.  (But I keep getting ahead of myself…)

When reading The Bible, I’ve learned to always pay attention to numbers, especially the number seven, which is always significant.  In Hebrew, seven is sheva, which also means “vow” or “promise.”  The number seven (sheva) is used in contexts to signify the fulfillment of a covenant; and not at random but at a specific time appointed by God.  (God rested on the seventh day, the sabbath day fell on the seventh day, there are seven appointed festivals to the Lord, etc.)  Saul did not wait for God’s fulfillment; rather, he acted in haste according to his own wisdom.  Saul disobeyed by putting his will ahead of the Lord’s and so he thwarted the relationship-building process with God.  A bit later in the story we read that Saul again disobeyed God by sparing the Philistine king’s life and by allowing his men to keep the best of the Philistines’ livestock as a reward, contrary to God’s very specific instructions.

“So what?” a voice in me cried.  “What was the harm in sparing their king and keeping their cattle as a reward?  Saul and his men had earned it.  And wasn’t sparing the Philistine king an act of mercy?  Anyway, Saul did most of what God told him to do.”

Are you satisfied with being mostly right?  To Me, that standard is entirely wrong.  You are not called to be self-serving and self-righteous.  Rather, you are called to serve Me and rely upon My judgment of what is good and right.  Look again at Saul’s character; and then your own.  

Clearly, Saul was self-serving, as am I.  But was Saul “self-righteous”?  Am I?  What does this term mean?  The Israelites understood there to be three kinds of sin, each significantly worse than the one before:

(1) khata, Hebrew for “sin,” means to miss the mark by doing wrong out of ignorance or by accident, not necessarily due to wickedness or ill intent.  A khata is any act, word, or thought that is sinful because it falls short of the glory of God.

(2) pesha, or “transgression,” is to knowingly do wrong or disobey God’s law or instruction.

(3) avon, or “iniquity,” refers to sinful acts that are premeditated, deliberate, and ongoing without repentance.  Iniquity is open rebellion against God, in the image of satan, typically characterized by deciding for oneself what is good while cultivating an image of moral superiority over others — self-righteousness.

Saul transgressed (pesha) against God when he disobeyed His instructions.  Then, worse, Saul committed iniquity (avon) in how he responded when confronted by Samuel.  Saul said: “I know I have sinned.  But please, at least honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel…”  This statement shows that Saul is less concerned about his relationship with the Lord than he is about his image and stature in the eyes of his people.  Saul was not truly repentant and therefore he became self-righteous and entered into a state of iniquity.

Later, we see Saul again act foolishly in his haste when he refuses to allow his men to rest and eat.  In his folly, Saul speaks a curse of death on any man who eats that day before he has his vengeance on his enemies.  A short time later, his eldest son Jonathan, who is famished from his exertions in battle, eats some honey he finds in the forest.  Saul is angry when he finds out what Jonathan did, and says to him: “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.” (1 Samuel 14:44)  Saul’s willingness to needlessly sacrifice his firstborn son, and again later in the story (1 Samuel 20:30-33), is symbolic of Saul forfeiting his kingdom.

“Well, why would an all-knowing God appoint someone to be king who would make such choices?” countered that accusing inner voice in me.  “Doesn’t this mean that God either isn’t all-knowing, or that He went back on His Word?  This is all really God’s fault!”

No, it means none of these things.  Consider that Saul was 30 years old when he became king, and he reigned for 40 years. (1 Samuel 1:13)  Forty is another important number that recurs often in The Bible.  It signifies a period of time in which a person or nation is called to go on a spiritual journey with God.  This is a time in which God allows the person’s / nation’s faith to be tested.  (Noah was on the ark 40 days; Moses led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years; Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days; etc.)  The point is God didn’t wrest the kingdom away from Saul so He didn’t go back on His Word.  Rather, Saul acted in ways that frustrated the fulfillment of God’s Word by persistently acting foolishly, in haste in his own wisdom, and by valuing his own image of himself above his relationship with God when God rebuked him.  Thus, Saul forfeited his kingdom.

God gave Saul (and all of us) free will.  He gave us His standards for good and righteousness but He allows us to choose.  Saul chose to sin, then justified his sinful behavior, and then chose to persist in his state of iniquity.  Saul’s choices are an after-image of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in which they forfeited their right to live in God’s presence.  Thus, they doomed themselves and their descendants to death (sheol).  This is the repeating pattern, and inevitable outcome, of humanity’s sinful nature.  We see the same theme in the story of Esau, who foolishly forfeited his inheritance for a bowl of stew.  To value and choose material things of this world above a spiritual relationship with Our Heavenly Father is ultimately to miss out on God’s glory.

King Saul is a picture of sin.  He is the image of satan, who became self-righteous and rebelled against God because he valued his image of himself more than his relationship with the Creator.  Saul’s story serves as a warning of how a king can go astray seeking their own glory rather than seeking God’s glory, even while thinking they’re serving Him.

There are many contrasting characters in The Bible who are pictures of sin, salvation, and sanctification.  In this regard, God’s Word is fractal.  I will explore some of their stories in my next several blogs…

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think Saul got a raw deal in being made king without seeking it, and then later in being rebuked by Samuel for the choices he made as king?

2. Can you see your own character, or perhaps the character of someone you know,  reflected in Saul?

3. What do you think is the significance of the double meaning of Hebrew word for “Saul / sheol” in the story of his life?  In the story of Israel?  In the story of your life?

4. Have you ever arrived at the decision fork of whether to rely upon your own wisdom or to surrender to God’s wisdom?  Which way did you walk?

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