Saul was clearly a gifted leader, with natural gifts which made him the ‘obvious’ choice as king. But in these chapters we hear of the beginning of his downfall – as he tries to lead without obedience to God, falling into a bit of the trap of Samson and others who forgot that their great strengths were the gift of God, to be used faithfully and obediently.
In chapter 13, Saul’s impatience, fuelled by the common sense that his troops were slipping away from him, leads him to shortcut God’s timetable for action. Frustrated by waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifice before battle, Saul takes matters into his own hands and offers the sacrifice himself. It seems harsh – his actions don’t seem unreasonable given the circumstances, but Samuel is clear that this is serious. It’s not just Samuel protecting his role and status. It must have seemed to him that his warnings to the people about the dangers of kingship were being realised. Saul was listening to his own wisdom rather than to God, and showing a dangerous impatience.
Saul follows this with more unwise action – it looks like impetuousness, not stopping to think. He lays an unnecessary oath on the troops, banning them from food until ‘…I have been avenged on my enemies‘ (14:24). It seems not only rash but driven by personal revenge and pique, rather than the desire to do God’s will. The consequences are severe, and nearly disastrous for Jonathan, who had not heard the command and stopped to eat, even disagreeing with the ruling when he is told of it. (14:25-30). The ravenous troops then eat unclean food as soon as it is available, and the LORD refuses to speak. Jonathan is found out, and saved only by the wisdom of the people, which is greater than that of their king.
Third, Saul holds back from the harsh command of the LORD to destroy the Amalekites, sparing their king and the best of their livestock. It doesn’t seem that he was motivated by any kind of compassion, though. 15:9 tells us ‘Saul and the people spared [king] Agag and the best of the sheep and of the cattle… and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.’ Presumably the ordinary people of the Amalekites were ‘despised and worthless’, but the king was ‘valuable’. Saul is so pleased with himself that he ‘went to Carmel, where he set up a monument for himself‘ (15:12) rather than to the LORD.
Confronted by Samuel, Saul makes excuses about doing what the people wanted, and about how he was saving the best animals for sacrifice to the LORD, but Samuel is clear – ‘to obey is better than sacrifice‘ (15:22). It’s no good offering God worship which he has not asked for, while holding back from doing the things we know he has commanded us. That’s surely as relevant now as it was then. Whether we sing with fervour, receive communion with devotion or listen to (and preach?) the most eloquent and orthodox of sermons, it will count for nothing before God.
More generally still, Saul stands as a reminder that the greater our gifts, the more we need to make sure that we are listening to God and following his lead, all the more so when we dare to lead others. For the greater our gifts, the more is the risk that we will rely upon them rather than upon the giver of gifts. That way danger lies.
I’m reminded of the words of a wise spiritual guide, the late Rev’d Ben de la Mare, after the first time he’d seen me preach to a large youth congregation many years ago. In the vestry afterwards, he said to me “you’re a good performer, aren’t you?'” I thanked him with appropriate humility before he answered, “it wasn’t a compliment. It was a warning.” He then refused to elaborate until we met a couple of weeks later – by which time I’d worked it out for myself, as he’d intended that I should. The more we are able to ‘perform’ the more we need consciously to rely upon God.
Forgetting that was at the heart of Saul’s problems.