This narrative continues in the days of Israel settling in the land once they conquered the region. The book of Judges tells us on several occasions “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Even after all they had seen, they persisted in their rebellion against God, and just as before, God still attempted to help them. This time, he raised judges, holy men and women who rose to prominence teaching the people the ways of God.
Yet the people still persisted in their rebellion “doing what was wicked in the sight of The Lord.” Eventually, they clamored for a King to rule over them, just as “the other nations” had a King to rule them. (1 Samuel 8:5). This was directly contrary to God’s plan. As we remember from Eden, God ruled over Adam and Eve, and they were to be brought into unity ruling creation with Him. The people instead wanted yet another barrier between them and God, in an attempt to be like everyone else. The other nations introduced habits that nearly destroyed them, and still they could not shake their influence. (Gone were the days that God walked and talked with Moses, though he was unable to see God face to face. Even longer gone are the days when God walked side by side with Adam and Eve in the garden!)
However, at this point salvation history reaches one of those irrevocable turning points. God decides to grant the people their request for a King. Yet through that royal line, the True King would come to this world.
The founding of the Kingdom, like all institutions, certainly went through some growing pains. The Israelis could not protest they were unaware however. (1 Samuel 8:10-21) They received this instantly in the person of King Saul. Almost immediately after his coronation, Saul strikes fear into the heart of the people, conscripting them into battle. Rather than being this great man of legend they assumed their King would be, the people quickly realized that Saul would be a tyrant. Yet, the kingdom would remain, and God would use this Kingdom to fulfill his glory.
While Saul’s reign was initially one of expanding the glory of God’s people, this very rapidly changed. He was no longer leading the people, but using them as tools for his own desires, such as when he barred people from eating until every one of his enemies was dead (1 Samuel 14), which almost causes his son, the hero of the battle to die.
It rapidly becomes evident that Saul, far from being a servant of the people, is more interested in holding onto his own power. When he defeats the Egyptians (and their client kingdom) in battle at God’s command, he decides to keep the spoils for himself, contrary to the direct command of God those spoils be destroyed. He attempts to take as hostages of stature, as the kings around him do.
One thing we must remember is that Saul’s decisions are entirely rational, and even defensible from a certain point of view. What he spared from the sword amongst the animals he sacrificed to God. With a court of hostages, Israel’s position would certainly be strengthened, allowing in his mind God’s glory to be spread across the land.
There is just one problem with this. God commanded Saul to do the direct opposite. This campaign of war was not about building up stature, but rather God exacting vengeance upon those who oppressed His people at every corner. It is here that Samuel provides a curious statement:
Does the Lord desire holocausts and victims, and not rather that the voice of the Lord should be obeyed? For obedience is better than sacrifices: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat or rams. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey. Forasmuch, therefore, as you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has also rejected you from being king. (1 Sam 15:22-23)
When one looks at the regulations of the sacrifices of the law in the Old Testament, to hear God say “obedience is better than sacrifices” sounds a bit confusing. Yet in this sentence is contained one of the central truths of our faith.
Why is obedience better than sacrifice? Obedience goes right to the heart of our nature as human beings and created persons. Since we are created, we are not the Creator. When we obey, we in our own little way reverse the sin of our first parents, who sinned through their disobedience. Sure, they had their reasons. Even more, they didn’t become gods upon eating of the tree. Yet all of this is irrelevant. Their first test was to acknowledge God as the Creator of their lives, and they failed that test.
Through disobedience comes every other kind of sin. In doing what he had done, Saul placed himself above everyone, including God. God had given him a Kingdom, and at that point he “thanked” God by doing the precise opposite of what he was supposed to do. After all, he had a mighty army, was a war hero, and the people behind him. Why not enjoy the privileges?
Saul realizes at this point he has done a grave wrong. He repents before God, but that repentance is not total. He seeks to maintain his power which God had given him. Samuel rejects this, and walks away. We may lose a bit of the impact of such a move in the historical manner the Bible records the event.
We must remember that the King was a Dominus, a master over all the land. In the East, there has been a long tradition of the ruler having absolute authority. So absolute was this authority, he was completely separated from the people. Indeed, to merely enter into the presence of the King without his blessing was to incur death. If you took your leave before being given permission to leave, this was also worthy of death. For Samuel to turn his back on Saul was an act of rejecting his authority as King. Saul had been accustomed now for years for people to give him that deference. When it was rejected, his anger kindled hotly, and he tore the garment of Samuel in attempting to stop him. In return, Samuel promises Saul that the kingdom will be torn from him with equal force.
Having been rejected by God, Saul decides to build up his own power base at this point. He becomes a full-fledged tyrant, willing to go to any lengths to hold onto his power, including engaging in sorcery, a violation of the greatest commandment of Israel! Even in spite of all this, God still remains faithful to His people. Rather than end the kingdom right there (which He would certainly be His right), a new king is groomed.
The people demanded a King, even after the warnings, so God is letting them have what they want. We have here another instance of God helping His people, even if they are sinful. Just as He provided clothing to Adam and Eve, God still will give them a King, but this time a righteous King. The entrance of this heir apparent occurs in a most curious manner, yet much can be learned from it.