Several years ago, I got a call from my mother that my grandmother was about to pass away. Late one evening, I drove to the assisted living facility where she was living, and I noticed as I went in many of the employees were crying. It shocked me to find out that they were grieving over my grandmother. Although my grandparents had not been staying long at that facility, their 70-year marriage reminded the staff of the movie called “The Notebook.” Until that point, I’d never thought of that comparison. Our ideas about a person’s life sometimes become clear only from the perspective of hindsight.
In Scripture, we have the benefit of hindsight in thinking about Saul’s life. We can view the beginning of his reign from the perspective of his tragic end in 1 Samuel 31. In the second half of 1 Samuel, we see a man whose demon-inspired envy, rage, and paranoia drove him to cursing, violence, attempted murder, and witchcraft (or necromancy).
In the first years of his reign, Saul looked like an astounding success. Israel had clamored for a king because of Nahash the Ammonite (1 Samuel 12:12), whom Saul immediately defeated (11:1, 11). A Philistine garrison in the heart of Israel then fell to Saul and his son Jonathan. The third enemy to be defeated was the Amalekites, a brutal and vicious tribe that had been a thorn to Israel for centuries (Exodus 17:8-16). Saul seemed invincible.
Yet even in these victories, Saul was failing. Samuel had reminded the people of Israel that their future depended on their obedience to the Lord (1 Samuel 12:24-25). Saul immediately disobeyed the Lord by offering an unauthorized sacrifice (13:8-14). Although we don’t see outright disobedience in his victory over the Philistines, he made a foolish curse that his son received. Nothing immediately came of the curse, but Jonathan did die an untimely death at the same time as his father. When Saul defeated the Amalekites, he again refused to obey the Lord. The Lord had commanded him to destroy the Amalekites completely. After Saul tried to hide his disobedience, Samuel told Saul that the Lord would take away the kingdom.
When thinking about Saul, we have God’s perspective in Scripture. What can we learn from this perspective? First, it’s important to remember how successful Saul appeared as he defeated the Ammonites, Philistines, and Amalekites. A key truth from these chapters, however, is that apparent success and real success aren’t the same. He was failing in what matters most: faithfulness to God.
We need to be careful about giving Saul too hard of a time. He made choices many of us have made countless times. With both the Ammonites and Amalekites, he was being practical. We hold back tithes. We’re partial to those with money. We fudge the truth to avoid shame or to get a promotion. We schmooze so family members get benefits. If we look too closely at Saul, we see ourselves.
Jesus was the opposite of Saul. Saul appeared to be successful but was a disaster. Jesus appeared to be a disaster but proved the greatest success in history. Saul disobeyed when obedience was risky. Jesus obeyed when obedience was deadly. Saul’s son received a curse through Saul’s leadership. Jesus’ sheep receive an eternal blessing through His leadership.
When you see yourself in Saul, look away at the only truly perfect King — Jesus Christ.