v.24 Saul will say “I have sinned” twice in this text, again in v. 30. He will say the same thing again to David – whom he has been hunting and trying to kill – in 26:21. In no case does Saul’s confession appear to be sincere. We have a similar insincere confession on the lips of Pharaoh, in the middle of the plagues, in Ex. 10:16. “I have sinned against the Lord you God and against you,” Pharaoh said to Moses, but then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he refused to let Israel go.
Again, Saul wants to share the blame. He was afraid of the people. Saul was afraid of the Philistines, he was afraid of the people. He was afraid of everyone except the Lord!
v.25 Saul is now a pathetic figure, pleading with Samuel somehow to get him back in the Lord’s good graces. Samuel would have been expected to superintend the sacrifice. For him to refuse to be present would be a public humiliation for Saul, a public demonstration that Samuel had abandoned him.
v.26 The rejection is final and Saul brought it upon himself.
v.28 The finality of the Lord’s rejection of Saul is underscored by the fact that his successor has already been identified. He is a neighbor of Saul’s but not named, but his character is better than Saul’s and so he will be a more fit king.
v.29 There is tension, no doubt intended, between this statement and the earlier one in v. 11. In the Hebrew both use the term “repent,” one to say that God repented that he had made Saul king and the other to say that God never repents. But there are senses in which each is true – the Lord repents or changes his mind and the Lord never repents or changes his mind – and we have to appreciate in which sense we are to understand a particular statement. Here, of course, the Lord has pronounced his judgment on Saul’s life. That will not be taken back. He isn’t changeable in that way. The point of the statement in v. 29 is precisely “to combat the erroneous idea that it is easy to talk God round, and that his threats and promises need not be taken seriously.” [Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, i, 216] [Cf. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Men Naturally God’s Enemies and his point that men do not like God to be immutable. They want him to be like themselves, changeable, mutable. If they are angry with someone they soon tire of it and go on. They forget, they are distracted by other things. They want God to be like that. But he is not. His wrath is immutable, his holiness immutable, and that is a threat to sinful man. And so man does not like the God of the Bible, he wishes he were more manlike, more changeable, more flexible.] So God may regret having made Saul king, but he will not change his mind in regard to Saul’s rejection as king.
v.35 Samuel’s heart reflects the Lord’s own. It is a reminder that true prophets often are required to give messages that are as unpalatable to them as to those to whom they are given. Samuel still had affection for Saul and still felt keenly the disappointment of the hopes he had had for him. It is interesting that the terms “death” and “grieving” are both used even though Saul is still alive. But he is dead as the king of Israel. There is finality here.
In former days liberal scholars would look at a text like this and assume that it was a patchwork constructed out of different versions of the same story that the editor pieced together. You have two versions of Saul’s confessing his sin and its aftermath, in vv. 24 and 30, and the aftermath is different in each case. They would take that as proof of a doublet, two accounts of the same thing in one text, always evidence of a compilation of different sources. But, nowadays, even scholars and commentators who have no principled loyalty to the Bible and who do not presume its accuracy, are admitting that repetition is frequently a literary, narrative technique in the Bible. It is also true to life that people say things more than once and, often, change their meaning slightly with each repetition. What we have here, is it not clear, is an artful account of a most plausible psychological development in Saul.
What is more, there are differences in the two confessions and the closer one looks the more it appears that those differences are significant. In v. 24 Saul’s confession of sin – “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions”, culminating in the appeal to Samuel to return with him to make sacrifice – takes 13 words in the Hebrew. In v. 30 the confession is reduced to but one word. What is more, in the first instance Saul pleads for forgiveness. In the second, Saul only asks that Samuel help him save face before the people.
It appears that what has happened is this. Samuel regarded Saul’s first confession as insincere, as is indicated by the fact that he didn’t even bother to reply to Saul’s request for forgiveness. He will not go back with him because he fears that Saul would interpret his company as meaning the softening of the sentence of rejection. Instead Samuel reiterates the Lord’s rejection of Saul in no uncertain terms. When Saul tears Samuel’s robe, Samuel exploits that opportunity to emphasize that point again.
At this point, Saul, having failed to mollify Samuel with his high-sounding confession, offers a more candid one. He no longer hides the fact that what he is really interested in, what really concerns him, is not forgiveness but saving face. It seems he is virtually trying to make a bargain with Samuel: you go back with me, and I’ll worship the Lord (v. 30). Samuel does go back with Saul this time, though not necessarily because he accepts Saul’s terms. Samuel knows now that Saul will not misinterpret Samuel’s willingness to go back with him and, in any case, he has some business of his own, the execution of Agag, which Saul couldn’t be trusted to see to. [V.P. Long, “Interpolation or Characterization: How are We to Understand Saul’s Two Confessions,” Presbyterion, XIX, 1 (Spring 1993) 49-53]
We are now prepared for the introduction of David, Saul’s replacement, in the next chapter.
But, there is something here for us to pause to consider. And that is the principle of the opportune time in man’s dealings with God.
What we have in this text is an instance of repentance that is too late. It is insincere repentance, of course. It is repentance that did not come out of the heart of Saul’s heart and was not powerful enough to activate Saul’s will so as to turn him away from sin to God in true humility and obedience. But, the reason it was insincere, the root cause of its insincerity was that it was too late! As Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, wrote long ago, “Though true repentance is never too late, yet late repentance is seldom true…” [Works, vi, 405]
It is often the teaching of the Bible that opportunities can be lost and lost forever. When the Scripture says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” it is telling us that we cannot always count on the opportunity God gives us at one time to be available to us at another. And so we must seize the day in spiritual things, not least because we cannot know for sure that we will ever be given another opportunity to do what God is summoning us to do now.
Take Israel at Kadesh Barnea, for example. You remember the story, narrated for us in Numbers 14. The spies, excepting Joshua and Caleb, bring a disheartening report regarding the strength of the inhabitants of the promised land, the enemies that Israel will have to dislodge if she is to take possession of that land. The people complain and refuse to move against the inhabitants of Canaan. God then sends word of his judgment through Moses: all the adults of that generation of Israel will perish in the wilderness, none will see the Promised Land except Joshua and Caleb.
Well, the people realize the error of their ways and make preparations to mount the attack they had refused to mount the day before. Moses warns them that it is too late, that the Lord will not go with them, but they go anyway and are thoroughly mauled by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. They did the right thing, but they did it one day too late. They were sorry for their error. They thought to put it right. But a day later it was not and could not be true repentance, it was only grief for the payment God was requiring them for their sins.
The prophets speak of this often as well. There is point of no return in the matter of repentance. Hosea had long appealed to the Israelite to repent of their sins and return to God, but he realized at one point in his ministry that the window of opportunity had shut.
“Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. A spirit of prostitution is in their heart; they do not acknowledge the Lord. … When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the Lord, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.” [5:4-6]
That is to say, Israel will not genuinely repent and that for two reasons: one, their hearts are too hard and they will not turn, no matter what; and two, God has lost patience and will not turn them.
There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men,
To glory or despair.
There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s patience and his wrath.
But that did not mean that Israel would never affect repentance or appear to repent or claim to repent. She would.
The Bible’s doctrine is that protracted indifference to the Word of God; a continued defiance of God’s summons to repentance practiced over weeks and months and years can finally render a person’s heart so hard, so callused to the Word and presence of God, that it becomes impervious to the influence of that word and actually beyond hope of salvation. One can delay repentance until, as John Owen put it, one has made himself “sermon proof and sickness proof.” Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Absolutely. But very few will call at the last, not really, not sincerely, who have made a life’s work of refusing to heed God’s call. And most of the time they won’t even appear to repent.
This is a doctrine that lies on the face of the Bible – over and again in its pages we see people who are unwilling to repent even when the full force of God’s wrath is falling upon them for their sins – and yet it is not much talked about in our light and superficial day. Somehow people have the idea that they can always repent, even if at the last minute, and, allowed to believe that, they lose the urgency to seize the opportunity for repentance when that opportunity arises, for fear it will never arise again.
Think of the picture, the terrible picture, painted for us in Rev. 9:20-21. The Lord has visited the world with plagues and judgments of the most terrifying kind, multitudes have perished. But then we read,
“The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshipping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
Or take the case of the people of Jerusalem in the last days before the Babylonians reduced it to rubble. After all that Jeremiah had preached to them, all his warning, and after all that he had predicted would happen had come true, do they repent in dust and ashes? Do they admit the enormity of their error? Do they fall at Jeremiah’s feet and ask if there is anything that they might do at this late date to be saved? No, they do not! Instead we read that they said to Jeremiah:
“We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
They are so far past the point of no return that they are now sure that the calamity that has overtaken them is due to the fact that they hadn’t been faithfully worshipping their idols. That should terrify anyone who knows he should repent of sin but is waiting to do so at some later time.
It was very much like this during the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century. In a so-called Christian society, what everyone took to be the judgment of the Lord upon Europe, should have, we would think, produced a widespread and thorough-going repentance. It produced nothing of the kind. The hearts of the people, even of the ministry, were so hard that the prospect of approaching death produced only an orgy of debauchery and lawlessness – getting in their last licks before it was too late.
No, no my brothers, there is one time and one time only for repentance, and that time is NOW! “‘Now’ is the only time that touches eternity,” said C.S. Lewis. The Devil will do his best to get you to think about what you should have done or did do yesterday or might do tomorrow, precisely because what truly matters is what you do NOW! If he can keep you in the past or future he will have won. We are to live, will, act, NOW! By the time Saul was ready to say that he was sorry for his sins, his sins had so corrupted his heart that he couldn’t say it sincerely! He couldn’t even fake sincerity sufficiently well to fool Samuel.
When once you see that sin is a kind of infection which can spread to every part of our lives and finally render us deaf to the Lord’s voice and powerless to move in response to his summons, then you will want to rid yourself of that sin, by confession and repentance, turn from that sin, all the time. Nip it in the bud. Don’t let it get a grip or send down a root! Make it your plan to do as Rutherford said we should: “Break off a piece of sin every day.”
Be very sure that when the time comes when you absolutely must repent or lose all hope of peace with God and the hope of salvation, you will not have already made such true and genuine repentance impossible. The Venerable Bede in his celebrated History of the English Church and People tells of a certain great man who was sick and was admonished to repent, but who answered that he didn’t want to repent yet because if he recovered his friends would laugh at him. But he grew sicker and sicker. His friends implored him to repent now before it was to late, but then he told them it was already too late, “Quia jam judicatus sum et condemnatus.” [Brooks, Works, vi, 405]
Look at Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Should you not fear that the same thing could happen to you and that you would be left making insincere apologies for sins you neither will nor could turn away from. Saul should have repented long before. Then his repentance here might have been genuine and might have saved his soul. As it was, it was far too little because it was far too late.