Saul Cannot Get a Break

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 16:1)

Poor King Saul. He can’t get a break from God. He didn’t ask to be king – it was God’s idea, not his. He wasn’t cut out for it, not really, not even being head and shoulders above the rest. He didn’t have the knack for it, despite that first success that earned him the loyalty of the men of Jabesh-Gilead. You watch him acting rashly, unsteadily and defensively. He lacked political imagination. Why did God choose him? And why did God so absolutely reject him for an action that seems, relatively, not so bad? God didn’t give him a second chance. Was he supposed to hand over his crown to David, as Jonathan was ready to do? But nobody told him to. He was abandoned. God sent him evil spirits. God just didn’t like him.

God liked David. No matter what David did. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel like David too, but the anonymous author tells the story knowingly. The text suggests the ambition and self-interest in David’s most admired actions, like bringing the ark into Jerusalem and dancing before the people and being so patronizing with Mephibosheth. He had political instincts and a knack for self-promotion. Queen Michal could see it, as the author reports, but God took David’s side (even against Michal).

How to read this theologically? You could do it like Luther does with Jacob in his Genesis commentary, as a case history of justification by faith alone. David, like Jacob, is a piker, but he always lives by his faith. Saul is more conventional. He doesn’t “get” grace (he would have killed Jonathan for breaking his foolish rule about not eating during a battle), and even in his sorrow he doesn’t “get” repentance. Well, one could ring those Lutheran changes, but that would not be enough for me.

Aren’t we dealing with the reality and the problem of God’s sovereignty and with the fearful implications of God’s prerogative and claim and of election and judgment in particular? The prophet Samuel honors God’s election(s) and is the first to speak judgment on Saul. So the author of 1 and 2 Samuel honors and displays God’s sovereignty and also shows us what a problem it is. And does not solve it. Which troubles us: How can God act like this?

Oliver O’Donovan writes that when we read the Old Testament, “we need to learn how to ask other questions before the moral ones: the history of divine revelation … is not concerned only with justifying the good and condemning the bad. This Old Testament history is concerned only to reveal the impact of the divine reality upon the human in election and judgment.” We will, of course, be troubled by questions about God’s jealousy and wrath, “which will be answered for us only as we follow the story of his self-revelation forward to its climax in Jesus.” In these Old Testament stories, “election and judgment had to be shown in all its nakedness, in all its possible hostility to the world, if we were to learn what it meant that in Christ the Word of God became flesh and took the cause of the world as his own cause” (“Resurrection and Moral Order,” p. 158).

Which lets me know that my own life is real and has its own existence beside the gospel and that the gospel doesn’t make it nice and neat when I deal with God. The sovereignty of God is both true and contradictory in my life. To maintain that sovereignty despite the contradictions is to be a Calvinist. It’s not that we Calvinists deny that we have free will or that we are responsible for our souls; it’s that we do not let these latter realities cancel the claim of God’s election, and we say that most loudly to ourselves. In prayer.