So you think you’re better than…Saul

Saul and David

I may not have tried to nail someone with a spear, but that does not make me a better person.

To my surprise, reading the story of King Saul produced an emotion I had never had toward him before: sympathy.

It could not have been easy to be him. After leaving home with the somewhat simple task of finding his father’s donkeys, he then stumbles into being anointed as king over Israel—the first that the nation has ever had! How would you have handled this?

The latter part of the life of Saul was a sad tale, full of desperation and instability. What was even more tragic was that his reign came to an end at the hand of his own sword.

How can one go from being chosen and anointed by God to then committing suicide?

The bible commits too many pages to Saul’s life not to take heed the warnings that come from it (1 Corinthians 10:11-12). What we see in Saul is a human-being whose humanity happened to get the best of him. You mean to tell me that you have never experienced anxiety (1 Samuel 13:8-12), depression (1 Sam. 28:20-23), fear (1 Sam. 10:22) or jealousy (1 Sam. 18:6-9)?

I think that you can quickly see how we can relate to Saul, and how we can also fall prey to the thing that led to his eventual downfall: insecurity. While I think the case can be made for fear being the plight of Saul, I reason that his fears were the byproduct of his more deeply-rooted self-consciousness.

Samuel’s words to Saul after not following the Lord’s command to “strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have” (1 Sam. 15:3), choosing to spare King Agag and the best livestock, may be the most telling in this regard: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:17).

Saul’s battle with his self-image led to him mortgaging his future. Instead of wholeheartedly submitting to the word of God, he chose to succumb to the pressure from the people, saying:

I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal. (v. 20-21)

While I will admit that Saul is playing the blame game, I believe that there is some truth to what he is saying—whereas I used to think he was just lying. After receiving a rather sobering rebuke from Samuel, culminated in his being rejected as king, Saul confesses, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (v. 24).

Indeed, Saul, as the first human king over Israel (1 Sam. 12:12-13), was in a tough position, but he appealed to pleasing the people rather than the Lord as the methodology for being a successful king. Was he always so moved by public opinion, though?

In response to a threat from the Ammonites and the apparent cowardice of the Israelites, Saul issues a threat of his own to his fellow countryman: “He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying, ‘Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!’ Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man” (1 Sam. 11:7).

The boldness that Saul displayed in 1 Samuel 11, however, was due to the Spirit of God coming upon him (v. 6), much like denying Peter’s boldness came from the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Perhaps a good point to make here, somewhat parenthetically, is this: serving God cannot be done in our own strength, but only by the power of the Spirit. This truth, evidenced in the life of Saul, is one of the preeminent precepts of the New Testament, foremost espoused probably nowhere better than Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Galatians, known mostly for its juxtaposition of the flesh and Spirit, while also recognized as the “Magna Carta” of the Protestant Reformation for its staunch affirmation of justification by faith alone, has as a sub-theme pleasing people rather than God – a theme that is not often discussed.

Paul begins the letter, stating, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). If there was ever a person in the New Testament record who should have been concerned with public opinion, it would be Paul [formerly Saul (of Tarsus)].

By his own admission, he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). He says to the Philippians, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 4b-6).

So popular was Saul among the Jews that he was able to obtain letters from the high priest to the synagogues at Damascus, prohibiting this heretical sect of Judaism that claimed Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, this was the same trip in which Saul experienced this Jesus he had been persecuting (Acts 9:3-5).

If Paul would have thought about how stupid he would look or what his former associates would think of his newfound faith, then that would have left a large part of the world untouched by his influences. So what did Paul do, what could Saul have done and how can we learn to combat the insecurity that tempts us to “fear the people”?

As followers of Christ, we have to make our appeal to our identity in God. To resort to any other medium (and our culture will offer several) would be an error.

Looking closely, both Samuel and Paul make this appeal. Again, Samuel says to Saul, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:17). Additionally, Paul writes, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10c).

Foundational in our walk with the Lord is the decision to please Him and not people. The earliest disciples fully understood this, saying to the Jewish ruling council on two occasions, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (Acts 4:19) and “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).

From Peter’s behavior in Galatians, we know that this is not just a one-time decision, but a daily one. Galatians 2:11-14 details:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Paul, once again, makes an appeal to our identity in Christ—“neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free . . . no male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29)—to combat the pressures of pleasing people; in this case, a group of Jewish Christians with the theological persuasion that circumcision was necessary for salvation.

Freedom in Christ, then, allows us not to be held captive by the opinions of others, including our own. Regardless of what may try to attach itself unto our individual identities, at our core we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ. What matters is living a life that honors our Father and seeks to please him in all of our affairs.

The example of Peter and the more somber example of Saul show us how easy it can be to compromise pleasing the Lord in favor of pleasing people. Fortunately, we are able to see the results of these decisions—rebuke in one case and death in the other—and take them as admonishment to seek the Lord’s approval.

Let us make our boast in the Lord and say with the writer of Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Heb. 13:6).

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~ by christianballenger on February 3, 2014.

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