King Saul gets a bad rap.
As the first king of Israel, he’ll forever be linked to the Chosen Nation’s rejection of a theocratic model of government, and, of course, there was the little issue where he kept getting possessed by demons and tried to kill the guy who was supposed to succeed him. It’s easy to draw a cause-and-effect conclusion between these two things: Israel told God they wanted a human king like the rest of their nations, so he sent them a guy prone to demon possession and violent mood swings.
That’s the way I always saw it, anyway. God was punishing Israel for their rejection.
But now, as I reread I Samuel, I’m not so sure that was the case.
After Israel’s rejection and Samuel’s warning, Saul’s story starts off like almost every other story of an Old Testament hero. God sends his prophet to anoint someone, but he’s not your typical hero. Sure, he’s tall and good-looking, but the first thing he does when Samuel tells him God’s plan for him is to point out his low standing:
But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? (I Samuel 9:21, NIV)
Classic Old Testament hero move.
Saul’s reign over Israel even begins fairly well. He starts out humble and kind. Even after Samuel anoints him, he doesn’t come back home to any fanfare; he tries to hide in the luggage. Later, when a small pocket of naysayers are brought before him, he refuses to have them executed because he wants the focus to be on God’s provision.
By all accounts, he seems to be a good king. After reading the first four chapters describing Saul’s rise to power, it’s clear that God isn’t punishing Israel by putting an evil man in charge of them. He’s giving them their very best option outside of Himself.
But Israel’s best option outside of God still failed them. When Saul’s reign started to go downhill, it went downhill fast. By the end, he was a lame duck who couldn’t do anything right, while all of Israel waited for David to finally take power.
But David’s reign wasn’t without failure. Neither was Solomon’s. Neither, really, was any other reign. You read passages in Kings about guys who were “good kings,” but even they weren’t able to bring lasting peace to Israel. So maybe Saul’s problem wasn’t that he was God’s judgment on the nation of Israel for rejecting him as their primary ruler. Maybe his problem was simply the problem of David and Solomon and every other human King of the Jews.
Maybe his problem was simply that our best option outside of God is still a pretty bad option.