We are by now familiar with the list of tyrannies that God said Israel’s desired King would impose upon them (1 Sam. 8): conscription for military service and civil service, a military-industrial complex, high taxation, confiscation of property, slavery, etc. (See my previous discussions here and here.)
What we learn from the following two chapters is 1) the defective type of man who is just right for that job, and 2) the obstinacy of a population who looks past his folly, the certainty of tyranny, and cheers him on. In these ways, 1 Samuel 9–10 is a snapshot of modern politics, too.
For starters, we learn what type of person we have in Saul. This appears at various places in the two chapters. First, in 9:1 we learn that Saul comes from great stock. His father was “a man of wealth.” There is question among the commentators weather the word for “wealth” here (chayil) should be translated “wealth” (as in Deut. 8:18) or “strength” (as in 1 Sam. 2:4). It can mean both, and both may very well apply in this case.
What is not in dispute is that Saul was quite a physical specimen: he was “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” (9:2). This guy was the quarterback, the star of the show. He had a commanding presence: he drew all eyes when he entered the room.
Second, we get an insight into Saul’s self-centeredness. While out seeking for his father’s lost asses, after only a short time he abandons the search. Why? Because he grows concerned that his father might be missing him: “Come, let us go back, lest my father cease to care about the donkeys and become anxious about us” (9:5). In this little vignette we see Saul’s self-concern in seed form. He had traveled no more than ten miles—perhaps long by modern standards, but really less than a day’s walk. It’s plausible a father would get concerned, but in that culture it’s doubtful, especially with Saul being the biggest guy on the block.
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Rather, as we see revealed clearer in later passages, Saul was self-absorbed in a big way. Even when his open rebellion becomes clear and he is rejected as being king over Israel, Saul is concerned primarily with not losing his standing before the people: “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God” (1 Sam. 15:30). As commentator John Gill puts it: “he seemed more concerned for the loss of honour and reputation with the people, than for his sin against God, which is always the case of hypocrites.”1 Saul ends selfish because he began selfish.
Almost hidden in the story, we have a wonderful poetic image given to us in the side-plot of Saul hunting for the herd of donkeys (“asses” in the KJV). In one sense, the addition of this detail in the story seems only to serve as a reason why Saul journeyed to Zuph to begin with. But at another level, it is at least tempting if not correct to see here an image of the stubborn flock of God who had just rejected Him in favor of a king, and their soon-to-be king Saul was sent out looking for his father’s flock. Instead of a flock of sheep, however, they were a herd of asses.
Thus when Saul converses with Samuel for the first time, Samuel essentially says, “Hey, don’t worry about the donkeys you’re looking for. They have been found.” The actual donkeys had been found, so this was a literal revelation from Samuel and would be a sign to Saul of the divine veracity of Samuel’s message. But it is also getting further mileage out of the “God’s stiffnecked, stubborn people Israel” image: “Looking for a herd of asses, Saul? Look no further.” And what is unstated but implied: “You are about to be made King of the Asses.” Not only was it a fact, but Saul was the right man for the job.
Third, it appears Saul was something of a liar, though perhaps this time in an attempt to appear humble. When Samuel reveals to Saul that all Israel is waiting for him, Saul replies in disbelief: “is not my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (9:21). Yet we’ve already learned that his father was a great and powerful man (9:1), possibly even wealthy. There seems to be some level of conflict here.
Indeed, truth seems to be a handicap for Saul later as well. Again, in chapter 15, we see Saul’s consummate sin of disobedience against God: he fails to carry out God’s command to anywhere near its fullness, but instead follows his own judgment and spares king Agag and the best of the cattle. It’s the very sin for which God rejects Saul from the throne. And yet Saul meets Samuel with the report, “I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Sam. 15:13 ESV). It was an outright lie.
Fourth, we might as well tally that Saul was self-willed and not suppliant to God. This should go without saying at this point.
Finally, despite his great stature and presence, Saul turns out to be a coward who runs from his calling. Even after being anointed by Samuel, even after divine signs confirming that calling for Saul, and even after God’s Spirit changing Saul’s heart—whatever that fully entails in this case—when it comes time to stand and acknowledge that calling and consecration before the assembled nation, Saul has disappeared. He’s gone. Everyone is at a loss for Saul’s whereabouts. After consulting with the Lord, it is revealed that Saul is hiding among “the stuff” (KJV), or “the baggage” (ESV) (10:22). He was hiding in a warehouse.
So, Saul was tall and handsome, yes, but he was selfish, a liar, and a shell of a man.
In short, he had all the raw material of a classic politician.
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It is at this point that Samuel warns the nation once again of the grave decision they are making. They are literally rejecting God in setting up the rule of man over them:
And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us’” (1 Sam. 10:18–19).
Indeed, they were rejecting the God who had delivered and protected them from slavery, and were embracing a form of government that was destined to bring them back into slavery—all in the name of national security.
And ironically, it was at this very point that the nation which had rejected God for a king, had to ask God where their new king was hiding. The great man who was supposedly going to protect Israel and save her from all her enemies was hiding in fear of his calling. And Israel had to rely upon the God they rejected in order to find their cowering hero.
And yet, they wanted that hero anyway. When Saul was brought forth, his stature was of note among the people, who were certainly in awe of their new king. Samuel announced the obvious (almost certainly mockingly to some degree), “There is none like him among all the people” (1 Sam. 10:24). And the people, wowed, shouted, “Long live the king!” Samuel then dumped cold water on the party, repeating the “way of the king” (same phrase as 1 Sam. 8:9, 11)—the tyranny that was about to come through this man—and writing it in a book as a witness against the people.
So in short, what do we have here? We have a people moved by fear of terrorist attacks (from the Philistines and other surrounding enemies), and by this fear are moved to accept (nay, demand!) an aggressive national military leader (8:20) contrary to God’s command (Deut. 17, 22), fashioned after the standards of the very pagans they condemned. This pro-war, pro-military desire on the part of the people God considered a complete rejection of His rule.
When a self-centered, lying, cheating, coward comes along whose only asset is his appearance, this people spontaneously bursts into a praise chorus, “Long live the king!” Despite an imminent warning of tyranny and slavery from the only person in the whole nation who everyone knew had never said a single word that didn’t come to pass (3:19; 9:6), and despite having witnessed their would-be king caught hiding from them when duty called, the nation could not praise his advent loud enough.
There is a particular irrationality that attends allegiance to political solutions and political heroes. God put this lesson here for us all to see and learn. It applies just as much today as it did 3,000 years ago. God has revealed to us a government and a way of life that is peaceful, prosperous, free, and which safeguards both liberty and safety (defense). But we continually reject that way—even when we have something close to that choice before us—in exchange for imperialism and a foreign policy of war and fear.
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We break every law God gave against a strong central government, and we are too often totally oblivious to the tyranny and slavery—in biblical terms—under which we have lived for decades. Our written histories center on political personalities and the wars we’ve fought, and by these we define the greatness of a nation.
We judge political candidates by their stage presence—whether or not they “look presidential.” I even heard a woman on a news panel the other day—she was the wife of a military man—scoffing at one particular candidate for president because of his appearance. She said he has no “command presence,” and she just couldn’t imagine him as commander in chief because she couldn’t picture him leading an army.
Well, Saul had quite a “command presence,” didn’t he? And how did that work out?
Worse yet, the whole mentality of a “king” to “fight our battles” God condemned as a rejection of Him, totally. That decision in Samuel’s generation led to a militarized Jewish state which slowly, steadily declined—despite temporary revivals—until total subjection Babylon. So much for “command presence.” It took over 400 years for this process to complete, but it was the inevitable result of rejecting God’s revealed society in exchange for the false safety of a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy.
- Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 2:491.(↩)