“The Call of Saul”
1 Samuel 9:1-10:16
March 10, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
We return to First Samuel again this evening, picking up in chapter nine. We have a long passage tonight, from verse one of chapter nine through verse sixteen of chapter ten.
It may be helpful to remember where we left off after chapter eight. Israel has requested a king. God has clarified that they want a king like they had in Egypt – a king like Pharaoh who takes more than he gives – and not a king like Yahweh. And then when they confirmed that, God said he would give them such a king.
And it is right after that that we pick up in chapter nine. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening:
9:1There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. 2 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.
3 Now 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.” 4 And he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then they passed through the land of Benjamin, but did not find them.
5 When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, “Come, let us go back, lest my father cease to care about the donkeys and become anxious about us.” 6 But he said to him, “Behold, there is a man of God in this city, and he is a man who is held in honor; all that he says comes true. So now let us go there. Perhaps he can tell us the way we should go.” 7 Then Saul said to his servant, “But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What do we have?” 8 The servant answered Saul again, “Here, I have with me a quarter of a shekel of silver, and I will give it to the man of God to tell us our way.”9 (Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, “Come, let us go to the seer,” for today’s “prophet” was formerly called a seer.) 10 And Saul said to his servant, “Well said; come, let us go.” So they went to the city where the man of God was.
11 As they went up the hill to the city, they met young women coming out to draw water and said to them, “Is the seer here?” 12 They answered, “He is; behold, he is just ahead of you. Hurry. He has come just now to the city, because the people have a sacrifice today on the high place. 13 As soon as you enter the city you will find him, before he goes up to the high place to eat. For the people will not eat till he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those who are invited will eat. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.” 14 So they went up to the city. As they were entering the city, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the high place.
15 Now the day before Saul came, Yahweh had revealed to Samuel:16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” 17 When Samuel saw Saul, Yahweh told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.” 18 Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Tell me where is the house of the seer?” 19 Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. 20 As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house?” 21 Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?”
22 Then Samuel took Saul and his young man and brought them into the hall and gave them a place at the head of those who had been invited, who were about thirty persons. 23 And Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the portion I gave you, of which I said to you, ‘Put it aside.’” 24 So the cook took up the leg and what was on it and set them before Saul. And Samuel said, “See, what was kept is set before you. Eat, because it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.”
So Saul ate with Samuel that day. 25 And when they came down from the high place into the city, a bed was spread for Saul on the roof, and he lay down to sleep. 26 Then at the break of dawn Samuel called to Saul on the roof, “Up, that I may send you on your way.” So Saul arose, and both he and Samuel went out into the street.
27 As they were going down to the outskirts of the city, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the servant to pass on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.”
10:1Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not Yahweh anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of Yahweh and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that Yahweh has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. 2 When you depart from me today, you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah, and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has ceased to care about the donkeys and is anxious about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’ 3 Then you shall go on from there farther and come to the oak of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine.4 And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from their hand. 5 After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. 6 Then the Spirit of Yahweh will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. 7 Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you. 8 Then go down before me to Gilgal. And behold, I am coming down to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.”
9 When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. 10 When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. 11 And when all who knew him previously saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” 12 And a man of the place answered, “And who is their father?” Therefore it became a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” 13 When he had finished prophesying, he came to the high place.
14 Saul’s uncle said to him and to his servant, “Where did you go?” And he said, “To seek the donkeys. And when we saw they were not to be found, we went to Samuel.” 15 And Saul’s uncle said, “Please tell me what Samuel said to you.” 16 And Saul said to his uncle, “He told us plainly that the donkeys had been found.” But about the matter of the kingdom, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Let’s pray …
We praise you, Lord,
and with the psalmist,
we ask you to teach us your ways and your truth.
Help us to take your Word into our hearts and onto our lips.
Make us to delight in your testimony more than in riches.
Help to meditate on your precepts,
and to fix our eyes on your ways.
Grant us to delight in your truth,
and to never forget your Word.
In Jesus name, Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:12-16]
We come to a passage now that in one sense is a logical bridge between chapter eight, where Yahweh agrees to give his people a king, and the second half of chapter ten, where we see the public appointment of Saul as king.
But in other ways the transition from eight to nine is odd. It’s odd first because we have a break at the beginning in the narrative. We go from a national gathering of Israel, to suddenly looking for missing donkeys with a Benjaminite. It takes some time before we see how this story connects with chapter eight.
But it’s also odd because most of us want to be able to find right here in chapters nine and ten evidence of what kind of king Saul will be … but I think the narrator is intentionally ambiguous.
On the one hand, as I suggested last Sunday evening, it seems that Yahweh has agreed to give Israel the kind of king they asked for, as a form of discipline. And so, we expect the man Samuel calls to be something of a tyrant. But off the bat, Saul doesn’t look like the kind of tyrant described in chapter eight, verses eleven through eighteen.
On the other hand, though, Saul also does not strike us as having exceptional virtue or piety either. It’s not really clear what to make of Saul at first.
Commentators then dig deeper and try to find evidence that Saul was either bad right from the beginning, or that he started out good and then fell tragically later on in the story. (Spoiler alert: Saul doesn’t work out so well in the end.)
And as commentators split between these views, the divergence in their interpretations of the details in the narrative is kind of striking.
One commentator would note that the lost donkeys might be a sign that Saul was a bad shepherd, and would similarly be a bad king [referenced in Leithart, 76], while another would point out that the donkeys were Saul’s father’s, and it is a mark of Saul’s good character that though he was likely around 40, he would still listened to his father’s voice (unlike Hophni and Phinehas) and like a servant, he was willing to dedicate several days to looking for his father’s lost livestock [Leithart, 77]
In Hebrew narrative, first recorded words someone speaks were often meant to say something about them. But again, in this case, one commentator looks at Saul’s first words in verse five and sees an indication of personal uncertainty in Saul [Alter, 47], while another sees in the same words an indication that he is a dutiful son [Gordon, 113]
Well scenes are usually associated with marriage in the Bible, and we come to women about to draw water in verse eleven. One commentator sees that Saul interacts with women going to draw water and concludes that what we have here is an “aborted” betrothal scene [Alter, 48], while another sees it as an indication that the feast that follows is a happy wedding feast between Saul and Israel [Leithart, 78].
One commentator sees in chapter ten verse seven, when Samuel tells Saul that when the Spirit rushes upon him he should do what his hand finds to do because God is with him, as an indication that he should attack the Philistine garrison mentioned in verse five, but then he failed to do so. [Gordon, 118] But another commentator sees verse nine stressing that Saul should wait before taking any military action against the Philistines, and so Saul’s inaction is a sign of his faithful submission to Samuel [Leithart, 79].
One commentator sees Saul’s secrecy in 10:16 about the anointing as a suspicious sign that Saul is already at cross-purposes with Yahweh [Firth, 127] while another sees it as an indication that Saul is being consistent with Samuel’s desire for secrecy. [Alter, 57]
Now … what do we make of all this?
First, it’s of course often the case that commentators disagree on how to interpret a text. And we should add that Hebrew narrative often signals us, as readers, through subtle cues.
But with the number of details that can be read in such different ways … perhaps the narrator intends for us to be uncertain about what to make of Saul at this point in the story.
There’s a lot of ambiguity about what Saul does and what he should do. There’s very little in his actions that are clear-cut good or bad so far … and maybe that’s the point.
Maybe Saul’s status is supposed to be open-ended at this point in the story. [Firth, 128] Maybe, as much as we want to find the key piece of evidence that Saul was bad from the start or that he started out good and fell from that position – maybe to best understand what this text has to teach us, we should instead embrace the open-ended nature of Saul at this point in the story.
David Firth notes that in this passage “the narrator’s skill is seen in how […] two elements, Yahweh’s overarching providence and the inherent ambiguity in Saul […] are held together.” [Firth, 128]
In other words, the focus of this text is less on what we can see so far about what Saul will do for Israel, and more about what Yahweh has done for Saul, and the open question of what Saul will do with what he’s been given.
And I think it’s within that framework that we can begin to see what this passage has to teach each of us as well.
We are not Saul. None of us are called to be king of Israel. But like Saul, Yahweh has done great things for us. And like Saul in this text, the future stretches out before us with the question of what we will do with his blessings.
And so as we look at each thing Yahweh does for Saul in this passage, rather than seeing Saul as a positive example before a fall from grace, or seeing him as a negative example destined for failure from the beginning, perhaps his ambiguity forces us to consider what he might do at this point in his story, and also consider what we might do at this point in ours.
We see three categories of blessings that Saul receives in this text, and a question hangs in the air over each one regarding what Saul will do with it.
We see that God blesses Saul with providential care, God blesses Saul with a new identity, and God blesses Saul with his guiding word.
I want to look at each of those in our text, and as we look at them I want to consider what the Lord has done for Saul (and for us), and the question of what Saul (and we) will do with that blessing.
So: Providential care, a new identity, and his guiding word.
First, God has blessed Saul with providential care.
Our text emphasizes this in two phases – first by showing us a series of events that needed to all line up to get Saul to his anointing, and second by giving a series of prophecies that are then fulfilled.
First, let’s look at the series of seemingly random events that get Saul to his anointing. We should appreciate just how many things needed to line up to get Saul to Samuel at the right time and the right place.
First, in chapter nine, verse three, Saul’s father’s donkeys had to go missing at just the right time.
Second, the route by which they looked for the donkeys without finding them in verses four and five had to have them arrive near Samuel’s home just at the time they were ready to give up.
Third, Saul’s servant had to hear about the prophet, as he has by verse six.
Fourth, the servant had to have with him enough of a gift for Saul to feel comfortable going to the prophet, even though they hadn’t planned on it when they packed.
Fifth, the timing had to be such that Samuel would be there – which couldn’t be taken for granted since we hear in chapter seven about the annual circuit Samuel followed every year. We hear in verse twelve that Samuel had just arrived back.
Sixth, we learn in verses fourteen and nineteen that Saul arrived just in time for the meal that would honor him.
Seventh, Saul had to catch Samuel, as described in verses fourteen and eighteen just as he was coming out for the meal.
Now, the last two elements are more enhancements on what happened than necessary steps, but if the first five events had not all happened just as they did – if the donkeys had not gone missing when they did, or if Saul had taken a different route, or if the servant had not heard about Samuel, or if they did not happen to have a sufficient gift with them, or if Samuel had not been in town, then none of this happens. Saul never comes before Samuel. Saul is never anointed to be the next king.
From a ground-level human perspective, the whole thing seems almost random … but of course it was not all just a series of random events. Because in chapter nine, verse sixteen, the Lord says to Samuel “Tomorrow about this time I will send you a man.” That man was Saul. And he showed up because the Lord had sent him.
The narrator is showing us what Saul should have seen upon reflection: that God was providentially caring for Saul every step along the way – in every detail of what happened – all in order to bless him.
Then the same truth is then shown a second time, now even more clearly.
In chapter ten Samuel describes in detail to Saul what will happen when he leaves him: he will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb who will give him information on the donkeys, he will meet three men by the oak of Tabor who will give him two loaves of bread, he will meet a group of prophets by Gibeath-elohim, and the Spirit will be given to him.
Three events, each where something is given to Saul, each foretold in detail so that Saul might see and know that God was sovereign over the details of Saul’s life, and that he was using that sovereignty to bless him. In chapter ten verses nine through twelve we see that all that was foretold came to pass.
Our passage makes it abundantly clear that God had providentially cared for Saul.
And the question that then hung in the air was this: Would Saul trust in God’s providential care going forward? Would he trust in God’s providential care in the future … or would he question it, doubt it, and become paranoid and controlling instead?
At this point in the story it remains an open question. But those of us who know the rest of the story know how Saul’s later years were consumed with paranoia and a desperate need to be in control.
Yet, at this point in the story, the question remains … and in that way the question can also shift to us.
God has providentially cared for us, as his people. The question is: Will we trust his providential care in our lives going forward?
There are many ways to reflect on God’s providential care in our lives. But here is one closer to our text: We often notice God’s providential care when we get something we are seeking or when something we are worried we might lose is, in the end, preserved. Our text is striking tonight because in it God brings something hugely significant into Saul’s life that Saul wasn’t even looking for.
And God does that to us too … all the time. And too often we fail to notice it. What has God brought to you, that has changed your life, that you weren’t even seeking?
Let me mention one example in my own life. When I candidated here back in October, it felt like I shared the story of how I came to be a believer about a thousand times. So, I won’t go over all the details again.
The short version is that I was cast as a minister (with one line) in the school musical my sophomore year of high school. Carrying a Bible as a prop one day, a Christian friend called me over to read me some passages from the Old Testament as a joke – because they were so odd. The passages he read caught my attention and led me to ask more questions about the Bible. My questions led to me reading the Gospels to learn more. And in reading the Gospels, I came to believe that they were true.
Let’s think about all the contingent things that had to come together for that to happen. Because I was not seeking faith. I wasn’t wondering about God. Instead, I was given something I had not looked for.
But let’s think about it: If I had been cast in a different role in that school musical … or if our director had not asked me to use a Bible as a prop (especially since it wasn’t really necessary) … or if I hadn’t been carrying around that Bible backstage that day … or if Mike had not been in the kind of mood to call me over to make jokes about passages of Leviticus and Numbers … or if I had been distracted by any number of things so that questions about what he read never came to mind … humanly speaking, if any of those things had not come together just right, I would not have become a believer … I would not be your pastor … I would never have gone to RUF in college, and therefore I would never have even met my wife. None of my three little girls would exist.
Humanly speaking, it all hangs on that series of events lining up just right – in which I found something I was not looking for.
I know you have chains of events like that in your life – everyone does.
What do we do with them?
Taken by themselves, in a vacuum, they can be sort of dreadful to think about, honestly … if time and chance were all that brought this about, then we can think of how easily our lives might not be anything like what they are today.
If instead we entrust these events out of our control to some sort of impersonal force – to fate, or the universe, whatever you want to call it … then we have no rational reason to trust that this force cares about us – that it will work for our good.
But the Book of Samuel is clear in reminding us what we can attribute those series of events to: our personal God’s loving care of us.
That is what the Bible says to you over, and over, and over again. But do you really believe it?
Because as we see it in our own lives, the same question that hangs in the air for Saul comes to us as well: If God has already done such wonderful things for you so far, will you trust his providential care going forward?
Or will you become paranoid and controlling … not unlike Saul (though hopefully not to the same degree).
I don’t know about you, but as I look at myself, I can trace lines of God’s providential care over, and over, and over again. And then the minute I’m reminded about some aspect of my life that I cannot control, I am overcome with fear, and paranoia, and a desire to grasp at control over my circumstances however I can.
What about you?
Our text calls us to live in light of what we know is true. We know that God has providentially cared for us. Can we live out our trust in that truth?
That’s the first blessing and question that our text puts before us.
The second thing we see is that God has graciously given Saul a new identity.
He’s done this in several ways.
The most obvious is in chapter ten, verses one, where Samuel anoints Saul as prince over Israel. But that’s not the only way he gives him a new identity.
In verses eleven and twelve of chapter ten we read that Saul also received a new identity as one among the prophets.
Then in verses six and nine we read that in some sense the Spirit gave Saul a new heart and made him a new man.
And in addition to that, one commentator notes that there are several indications that Saul also received a new identity as Samuel’s adopted son – as a replacement son for Samuel (when his sons went astray) the same way Samuel had been a replacement son for Eli (when his sons went astray). [Leithart, 74-80]
Saul, suddenly, unexpectedly, not because he’d sought it or earned it but out of God’s sheer grace, had been given a new identity as a prince, a prophet, a new man, and a son to Samuel the leader of Israel.
And then the question is, would he embrace that new identity from the heart … or would he undermine it … and subvert it … and contradict it in his life?
Once again, though the question hangs in the air here in the middle of chapter ten … those of us who know what follows also know that things will not go well with Saul.
But rather than reflect on him, let us again allow that question in the story to turn and face us.
If you are a Christian, you have been given a new identity in Christ. It’s not an identity you’ve earned. It’s not even an identity that on your own you would have sought out. You have received it by grace.
You have received the anointing of baptism and had the name of Christ put on you so that you are called Christian.
You have been counted among the people of God, his treasured possession. You have tasted of the Spirit and been given a new heart and become a new person in Christ. You have been adopted into a family you have no business being in – the Church, the Family of God.
Whether it happened when you came to faith in Christ in adulthood, or adolescence, or childhood, or even if God gave all that to you before you can remember it, as a covenant child – however it came, God has graciously given you that new identity in Christ.
Will you embrace it from the heart? Will you be who he has declared you to already be? Will you live as a son or daughter of the King, as a member of the royal household of Christ? Will you allow that identity to shape how you think, and feel, and act?
Or will you contradict it? Will you subvert it? Will you shrug it off and take it for granted and ultimately repudiate it?
That’s the question that our story leaves hanging in the air. God has given you this incredible identity. What will you do with it now?
So, we see how our text first shows God’s providential care. Second, it shows how he gives a new identity.
Now third and finally, we see that God has promised to give Saul his guiding word.
Saul has come to Samuel, and now through Samuel God will direct Saul. He tells him what to do. He tells him where to go. He then tells him that in this new identity Saul will not be on his own to figure out what to do, but God’s word will guide him, through Samuel. He tells him in chapter ten, verse eight, that he is to wait and to receive direction on what to do.
God has promised to guide Saul by his Word.
The question is: Will Saul hear and obey the Word of the Lord going forward?
Would he hear it and obey it, or would he resist it and resent it?
Again, for those of us who know the rest of the story, we know he will not, in the end, receive it as he should.
But for now, the question hangs there … and it turns its attention again towards us.
We too have the word of God to guide us. In many ways the blessing of God’s word we have in the Scriptures far exceeds what Saul was given.
The question is: Will we listen to it and trust it? Or will we disregard it … resist it … even resent it?
Where do you tend to disregard … or neglect … or take for granted God’s word?
We believe we have God’s word here. We believe that God wrote a book to guide us, his people. And here it is.
Do we read it frequently, as if we believed that God wrote it to bless us? Do we read it carefully, as if we believed that God wrote it to guide us? Do we pay attention when it is preached, as if we are really hearing God’s word for us?
God has lovingly promised to guide us with his word. Will we hear and obey it?
In our passage tonight, we are reminded of how God has providentially cared for us, how he has graciously given us a new identity, how he has promised to guide us with his word. The question is: What will we do with that?
I wonder if one of the appeals of seeing Saul’s character as set in stone already this early in the story is that it resolves the tension. And in resolving the tension, it sort of lets us off the hook. Because the tension in the text, the ambiguities in the text, point out the tensions and ambiguities in our own lives and hearts.
We too have been blessed. God has blessed us. He has given us reason upon reason to trust him, to obey him, to listen to him.
The question is whether we will.
Looking out beyond our text tonight, Saul seemed to do that … for a bit. But then a turn comes. In the end, he would not receive and live in light of God’s blessings.
His story is over now, and before us for our consideration.
But your story is not yet over.
God has blessed you. He wants to bless you. He wants to draw you ever closer to himself. You’re not on your own in this – it’s not a question of what you will achieve. He is at work already if you are here, and the question is whether you will cooperate with what he would do in your life or resist him.
You don’t need to grasp for control – you need to do what you are called to do, and then trust his providential care.
You don’t need to vie for a seat at God’s royal table, but to receive his gracious invitation.
You don’t need to climb up to heaven to grasp for his guidance, but to receive his word which is already given to you by grace.
It is all a gift … though it demands your whole life.
God’s gifts are before you. His blessings have already been poured out. Now what will you do with them?
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Davis, Dale Ralph. I Samuel: Looking on the Heart. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000.
Firth, David G. 1 & 2 Samuel. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
Gordon, Robert P. I&II Samuel: A Commentary. Library of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rabids, MI: Regency, 1986.
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.