Samuel: A spiritual and political tale of two kings. Part one: Saul
There are no fewer than six books in the Old Testament which cover the period of the monarchy: The first and second books of Samuel (sometimes called the first and second books of Kings), the first and second books of Kings (called the third and fourth books of Kings when the title “Samuel” is not used), and the first and second books of Chronicles (also called the first and second books of Paralipomenon). In this series, I am following the order and naming of the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version, and I will take up each of these books in turn.
The First Book of Samuel and the Second Book of Samuel are so-named because they cover the period in which the prophet Samuel is the undisputed spiritual leader of Israel and the last of the judges. It is through Samuel that God reluctantly consents to the desire of the people for a king, first by sending Samuel to anoint Saul, and finally by sending him to anoint David.
In commenting on Judges, I have already mentioned that God saw the desire for a king as a serious spiritual weakness in the people. In the First Book of Samuel, when the people officially petition Samuel for a king, the LORD says: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). Shortly thereafter, God tells Samuel to anoint Saul as king. Samuel also sets forth the rights and duties of the kingship, and makes this promise to Israel:
When you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, “No, but a king shall reign over us,” when the LORD your God was your king. And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. If you will fear the LORD and serve him and listen to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and 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 listen to the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king. [1 Sam 11:12-15]
This sort of admonishment appears repeatedly in the Old Testament. In itself, it is already a three-part lesson that remains apt to this day. Call it Catholic Political Theory 101:
- The most important thing is to love God and do His will, rather than seeking and preferring another source of authority.
- But ultimately the form of government does not matter as long as it is not desired for the wrong reasons or used to do evil.
- If government and people will follow the LORD, things will go well; if not, they will go badly.
Saul’s failure to trust in God
From this point on, the First Book of Samuel describes Saul’s repeated failure to trust in God and to do His will. Saul waffles between fearful commitment to God and reliance on his own human perceptions and powers. For this reason, God decides to take back Saul’s kingship so that He can establish the kingship in another family line, that of David. Sharp readers may protest, “But David sinned as well, especially with Uriah the Hittite and his beautiful wife, Bathsheba.” Nonetheless, we will find that David, in marked contrast to Saul, trusts in God and habitually honors Him, despite occasional sins. This contrast is so obvious that we might well see it as the moral of the two books.
In commenting on the First Book of Samuel, however, I will note only the spiritual and moral pattern exemplified by Saul. Consider:
- After Samuel anoints Saul, God performs a number of signs to reassure Saul that he has indeed been chosen, and also gives Saul the charismatic gift of prophecy. But when Samuel calls all the tribes together to announce the kingship, he finds that Saul “has hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam 10:22).
- Not long into his reign, Saul defeats the Ammonites and, with the help of his son Jonathan, wins a great victory over the Philistines. Meanwhile, Samuel has said he will come in seven days to offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving at Gilgal (in order to reinforce the establishment of the monarchy). But when Samuel is late, Saul sinfully takes it upon himself to offer the sacrifices, because he fears the people will drift away and the Philistines will attack while he is weak (1 Sam 13).
- Later Saul imposes a rash oath on the people, that they should not eat until he is avenged on his enemies; but his son Jonathan eats without knowing of the oath, and Saul condemns him to death as a prisoner of the Philistines (though the people ransom him) (1 Sam 14).
- When Samuel tells Saul to attack and utterly destroy the Amalekites and their livestock, Saul wins a victory but disobeys the LORD’s command: He allows the Amalekite king to live and destroys only what is worthless. He keeps “the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good” for himself (1 Sam 15).
- As a result, God decides to take back the kingship. He sends Samuel to Saul, and the first thing Saul does is lie: “Blessed be you to the LORD; I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” He asserts this even though Samuel can hear the “bleating of the sheep…and the lowing of the oxen” (1 Sam 15).
- The story of Saul’s relationship with David is well-known. David wins great battles for Saul, and Saul’s jealousy repeatedly leads him to attempt to kill David. For his part, David remains completely faithful to the King, even sparing his life on two occasions when he could easily have killed the king in self-defense. Saul oscillates wildly between admitting his sinful behavior to David and continuing to try to murder him (as recounted throughout 1 Sam 17-27).
- When the priests of Nob defend David as a faithful servant of Saul (which indeed he was), Saul sees them as conspirators and has them slaughtered (1 Sam 22).
- Under Samuel, Saul rightly banishes all mediums and wizards. But after Samuel dies, when Saul is again threatened by the Philistines—and even after he has been told that the kingship was taken away from him—he disguises himself and seeks advice from a medium at Endor. This is a very grave sin (1 Sam 28).
At the book closes, David has been anointed King by Samuel but has not yet taken power, and Samuel is dead. When the Philistines win a significant victory, Saul orders his armor-bearer to run him through and, when the armor-bearer refuses, Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword.
Saul’s sons are also killed on the same day. Indeed, all Israel is in flight. Thus passes the first king, making the lesson of the First Book of Samuel unmistakably clear.
Previous: Ruth shows family to be at the center of God’s plan.
Next: Samuel: A spiritual political tale of two kings. Part two: David
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